Over the Fourth of July weekend, many Americans will undoubtedly be coerced into singing a drunken rendition of the National Anthem. And understandably so. "The Star-Spangled Banner," written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 and set to the tune of a popular British song of several decades earlier, is a triumphal, well-loved reminder of our nation's historical roots.
It is also, objectively, a pretty bad song.
I'm not the first to take issue with "The Start-Spangled Banner." Last year, Slate made the case against it, pointing out that the song's extreme difficulty (the range between the highest sung note and the lowest is an octave and a half), its militaristic lyrics, and its bizarre provenance made it an odd choice for a national anthem. Dale McGowan, a professor of music, has made an even more thorough case against the song, which he calls an "aggressive, unsingable, relatively-recently-adopted, ill-constructed descendant of a raunchy bar ballad turned celebration of obscure military stalemate."
These people are right. There are many, many other songs that would make for better national anthems. Like "America the Beautiful," which is as lyrical and poetic as "The Star-Spangled Banner" is flat and boring. Or "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a song that was popular among black Americans around the time that white Southerners were pushing to make "The Star-Spangled Banner" America's official anthem.
But thanks to historical inertia, we're probably stuck with our national anthem. So if you absolutely must sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" this July 4, here are some tips:
1. Don't start too high. The classic mistake, among national anthem-singers, is starting the song in too high a key. That leads to problems later on, in the "rockets red glare" part of the song. Witness:
A good rule of thumb: the third note of the song ("O-oh say") should be the lowest note you can sing comfortably.
2. Speed it up. You wouldn't know it by today's drawn-out renditions, but "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written to be sung at a pretty quick tempo—104 beats a minute, with the last two lines at 96 beats a minute. Here's what a metronome at 100 beats per minute sounds like:
3. Keep it simple. The National Anthem is hard enough to sing as is; there's no need to gussy it up with runs, grace notes, or other embellishments. The most famous renditions of the National Anthem (on YouTube, at least) are sung by world-class pop and R&B singers, like Whitney Houston and Jennifer Hudson, who are good at this kind of thing. Even if you're a superstar (and you're not), you can end up making a fool of yourself, like Jamie Foxx did when he tried to spruce up the end of the national anthem earlier this year.
4. Study the words carefully. This is the most important tip. There are a lot of words in the National Anthem, and you need to know them all. Not 90 percent of them. All. Do not, under any circumstances, pull a Michael Bolton and forget them midway through, then look at a cheat sheet in your hand:
Happy Fourth of July!