' ' Cinema Romantico: Ray of Light

Monday, January 25, 2021

Ray of Light

The legendary Sports Illustrated scribe Dr. Z, née Paul Zimmerman, who died in 2018 at the age of 86, timed every rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner he heard. He wrote about this unique predilection in a piece, near as I can tell, since scrubbed from the Internet, though I remember the gist of it quite well, how the song, ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’, on which Francis Scott Key based his future National Anthem was a British pub tune in waltz time, a little ditty intended to be belted out quickly over a few drinks, not a marching band power ballad meant to herald flyovers. If the pre-game singing of a Star-Spangled Banner stretched longer than a minute, Z’s thinking went, you might be honoring America, albeit in over-inflated fashion, but not the song. So he clocked them all, searching for the 60-second versions, which were not entirely elusive but hard to come by nonetheless, too many destined to die on what he deemed Heartbreak Hill, the last two lines, when people threaten to extend that O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave into forever. If to some Whitney Houston’s Star-Spangled Banner before the 1991 Super Bowl was the greatest, to Dr. Z it was two-minutes plus. Nein. 

I have always sided with Z’s interpretation. I have a written a variation of this before but the stiff pageantry, not to the mention the patriotically correct add-ons (put your hand over your heart or else), frequently leave me feeling more distant from America than close to it. I do not mean to begrudge anyone for whom the Anthem culls genuine emotion. I feel it sometimes too, though generally from the circumstances, like an Olympian on the podium, rather than the song itself or the performance of it. The Star-Spangled Banner, as many more qualified to know than me have explained, is not inherently much of a song (Z noted The Battle Hymn of the Republic puts it away) and notoriously difficult to sing. Singing along to it, in fact, reminds me of my Lutheran pastor once instructing my confirmation class to recite the Lord’s Prayer, not with any feeling, just to prove we knew the words, which flashed me back to so many pre-class recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance and renditions of The Star-Spangled Banner before I-Cub games when my mind was anywhere else. Too often we sing the words without hearing them, a ceremonial formality, little else.

If, however, as Amanda Petrusich has argued for The New Yorker, the standardized Star-Spangled banner has made it sort of sacrilege to monkey with, what Lady Gaga did with the Anthem at President Joe Biden’s Inauguration last Wednesday was not reimagine it so much as refocus it. Like Bruce Springsteen seeing “When the Saints Go Marching In” not as joyful exultation but an apocalyptic hymn in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, or, more obscurely, how Jim O’Rourke heard something different and clear as a bell in mixing Wilco’s “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” into a masterpiece, Lady Gaga saw The Star-Spangled Banner’s middle, not Heartbreak Hill, as the crux.

As The Washington Post’s Chris Richards notes, Key’s anthem contains a question, wondering if the American flag will still be there at Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814 after a night’s bombardment. Lady Gaga’s version of the song honored that question, filtering through the prism of what had transpired two weeks earlier at the very same place, the U.S. Capitol, where she was standing. (The War of 1812, really, was no less stupid than what transpired on January 6, 2021.) “Just as she sang, ‘But our flag was still there,’” Stephanie Zacharek wrote of the rendition’s crucial moment, “she turned and, astonishingly, with a sweep of the arm straight out of Puccini or Verdi or Bizet, directed our attention to the actual flag. Her intent wasn’t just a subtext. It was a shout of jubilation and defiance. After all of this, our flag is still there!” In that single sweep of her arm, Gaga bridged the gap of 207 years, drew on both the surrounding context and the words of the song, melding them as one, lifting it up beyond compulsory pageantry to give it a pulse. The end, then, became not the bombastic culmination, leaving space for imaginary F-16s, but the emphatic benediction.

I don’t know what Dr. Z would have thought about Lady Gaga’s National Anthem. Maybe he would have just thought: it ran 1:45. Or maybe he would have put the stopwatch down because occasionally, rarely, even a Star-Spangled Banner can transcend time.

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