Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Star-Spangled Spectacle

One of the better performances on tonight's "American Idol" finale was Tamyra Gray's rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. She kept the riffs to a minimum, and although the ending was blown completely in an attempt to sound diva-like, it was otherwise a great performance.

I was annoyed, however, by the audience during the song. When Tamyra held a particularly long high note (I believe it was "rockets' red glare"), the audience cheered and applauded. At the song's conclusion, the audience again roared for Tamyra. And to me, these responses, particularly the former, felt inappropriate.

In times past, when the national anthem was sung at a public event such as a baseball game, it was a communal event. One person may have led the singing, but each person in attendance would put his (or her) hand over their hearts, and join in. It didn't matter that the song is rather difficult to sing; everyone sang anyway. It created a sense of community, of nationality. It was simple patriotism, without the jingoism of slogans or the ease of merely posting a flag. It brings the audience together, if only for a moment, and reminds us that despite our differences, we're still all Americans. When I sing along with our national anthem, I can't help but smile.

But we don't have communal singing of the anthem anymore. Instead, the event trots out an individual, and the audience rises to listen to that one person sing into a microphone. It's as if the national anthem must be performed under a spotlight. (Just imagine the Pledge of Allegiance delivered the same way.) There's no sense of community to such a performance, and many people don't pay attention to the song at all. It is just one more pre-game thing to wait through. Why is it still sung at all? Inertia, I imagine. Events have simply always had it. Only now it is a moment for an individual to get attention, rather than the nation.

That is why the audience's reaction during Tamyra's performance irritated me. The Star-Spangled Banner is the preeminent hymn of our American civil religion. And hymns are not to bring glory to the performer, but to God. This is why applauding is often frowned upon in church. But last night, the audience interrupted a beautiful rendition of our hymn to America to cheer *the performer* of the song. That's not the way the anthem should be treated.

When I attend events where the anthem is sung, I still sing along, even though I'm not asked to do so. I would encourage all others to do the same. Then listen to that wealth of voices streaming from the crowd, each different but all American, and try to tell me that that sound isn't more touching than any mere soloist on the field.


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