Reporting Jason Iannone
America’s an A-OK place to be. We have great food, plentiful beer, and the women are gorgeous at least 50% of the time. One of our biggest issues though, is the double standard we have with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s borderline-impossible to sing and yet, if you mess up, people side-eye you with more disgust than if you had literally taken a dump on the flag.
And God forbid you re-do the anthem in your own vision, and then screw THAT up. People all but call their Senator to see if what you did counts as high treason. And they only do THAT because torching your home, while you’re still in it, is illegal in most states.
Why are we bringing this up? Because Alicia Keys is tapped to do the National Anthem for this Sunday’s Super Bowl. Fine; she’s pretty damn good at what she does. But she has come out and announced plans to debut a “brand-new” version of the song. At least she’s warning us ahead of time.
We wish you the best of luck Miss Keys, but consider this article a heads-up. Plenty of artists have felt the need to re-invent our National Anthem, only to have it explode right in their fat, rich faces. Try not to be them.
Steven Tyler’s Harmonica and Scat Showcase
Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler likes to scream. He likes harmonica. He likes scobbity-boobity-bop-bop scat. In 2001, he tried to blend all three of his loves into one National Anthem. He more than likely included his fourth love – copious amounts of hard liquor – because the whole thing screamed “bad idea and worse execution.” He kicked things off with a harmonica solo that didn’t fit the song at all. Blowing randomly into a kazoo, and then singing like Alvin and The Chipmunks, would have made more sense. Especially since the Chipmunks could sing the song straight, without screwing anything up.
And the scatting. Oh, the scatting. It was just plain bizarre and felt completely tacked-on. However, if rumors are true, and Tyler is physically unable to communicate without scatting, then he’s forgiven. Somebody follow him the next time he hits a Burger King drive-through, just so we know for sure.
To add to the pile, his decision to end the song with “and the hoooome, oooooof theeeee…indianapolisfivehundred,” only made sense because he was at the Indy 500. Of course, that meant 250,000 rednecks all wanted him killed at the same time, which, sadly, also made sense. Next time Steve, do your goofy stuff at home in Boston, where you won’t have to get whisked away immediately for fear of your life.
R. Kelly Really Really Wants You to Clap Your Hands
Soul versions of the National Anthem have been done before, and done well. R. Kelly invented a whole new style of antheming, however: “Soul.” It’s like actual soul, even sounding like actual soul at times, but it’s very much not. “Soul,” at least for this performance, was ultimately about doing everything to distract the listeners from realizing he had no clue what he was doing, and that he needed time to remember those difficult words that even second-graders can memorize.
To that end, he hired a bunch of step-dancers to, well, step while he sang. Except they didn’t step. What they did was closer to ballroom dancing, except they didn’t do that either. They were just kinda walking in circles, while occasionally twirling their partner around nice and slowly. It looked less like cool step, and more like what Grandma and Grandpa do when the oldies station plays “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”
Still, pointless pseudo-dancing aside, this version started out OK enough. Then came the clapping. Or rather, the pleading and begging for other people to clap. For whatever reason, R. Kelly decided the anthem was incomplete until everybody started clapping along. Naturally, nobody did, because nobody claps during the anthem until they realize it’s over, when they can finally sit back on their keister and resume eating fatty foods.
Around the one-minute mark, it all fell apart. His pleading for the crowd to clap hands completely messed up the rhythm and melody, forcing him to awkwardly stumble his way to the finish line and start “whoo-ing” like Ric Flair, almost like he was praying that nobody noticed but him. Luckily, no one did, except for the thousands in attendance. And the millions watching worldwide. And the million or so people on YouTube with their faces buried in their hands.
Other than them? Total privacy.
The Fray Don’t Know the Chords, Make Up Their Own
Tyler and Kelly weren’t good by any stretch, but at least their “Banners” used the original as a basic foundation. The Fray though, had no time for such silliness. They’re artists after all, and they were gonna create art whether you like it or not! Spoiler: not.
The Fray decided that the anthem was totally old and outdated, but could easily be improved by sounding like, well, a Fray outtake. Amazing coincidence, that. So they rewrote the whole damned thing, with what sounded like all-new chords and chord progressions. All new, very sad-sounding chords by the way, enhanced significantly by a drummer who played as if he injects shots of pure decaf into his bloodstream every hour on the hour.
All this would have been fine (OK, we lied; no it wouldn’t,) except that the new chords didn’t fit the vocal melody at all. It truly sounded like two songs were being played at the same time. And why is that? Because they kept the old melody! Yes, they completely re-wrote the instrumental part, and left the singing part intact. The part, by the way, that no one can truly sing unless they’re a professional belter, or a six-octave opera diva.
Neither description, by the way, fits The Fray. This may hurt all the mid-tempo modern light rock enthusiasts in our audience, and we apologize for any pain we have caused, but sometimes the truth hurts. Though not as much as this song.
Jay Malinowski Knows the Chords, Strums Them like a Moron
Like a good Canadian singer, Jay Malinowski performed at a hockey game. Since the opponents were American, he played our anthem for us. It might have been better if he had stuck to “O Canada,” however.
Malinowski decided that all the flourish and melodic beauty of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the kind that would require the most delicate of fingerpicking to duplicate on one mere guitar, was pure Gauche. Ever the innovative soul, he decided the anthem was fit to be strummed, just like any other acoustic hipster jam that college bros use in their quest to bed increasingly naïve and stupid sorority girls.
Now, you would think a guy playing in front of 20,000 people would rehearse his damn song beforehand. If he had, he would’ve quickly realized that the anthem is very much NOT a strum song, and that he should probably just play it straight and not come across like a bumbling fool. He either didn’t do this, or did and just said “WELP, MAYBE THE ACOUSTICS OF ICE WILL MAKE IT BETTER.”
Of course, it did not. He sounded like a confused six-year-old trying to play Louie Louie for the first time. Admirably (or perhaps stupidly) he refused to admit defeat, continuing to stumble and bumble through the entire painful ordeal. And don’t think this was some clever anti-American troll job either. His full-time job with Bedouin Soundclash involves churning out lyrics like this:
I’m on the rocky road,
Heading down off the mountain slope,
And as my steps echo louder than before
Another day is done,
Say good-bye to the setting sun,
See what I found, turn back to the ground just like before
And hey hey hey, hey hey hey (hey!)
Hey Beautiful day (hey! hey!)
Clearly, this is not the new Rage Against The Machine, but rather some guy who learned five chords one afternoon, and decided that was more than enough for a career.
Stevie Ray Vaughn Makes Jimi Hendrix Cry
We all know Jimi’s version of the “The Star-Spangled Banner”: a clear case of re-invention that actually got it right. Good ol’ Stevie Ray attended a baseball game, and performed his own guitar-driven instrumental anthem. You would be forgiven for thinking he would perform it in his trademark blues-rockin’ style, because that would have made perfect sense. What wouldn’t have made sense would be Stevie plugging in his guitar, half-asleep, and noodling away in the most amateurish manner imaginable. So naturally, that’s exactly what happened, because life does not make sense and chaos shall always reign supreme.
Whatever effects he used to create the Stevie Ray sound were totally unused that day. In its place was, well, nothing really. There was no crunch, no overdrive, no extra bass, no nothing. It sounded like the most basic setup imaginable: stick guitar in amp, turn on amp, commence half-assed picking that makes you sound like you never heard your country’s anthem before. It’s a proven formula for success.
Everything totally fell apart at the one-minute mark (awful anthems tend to require a minute of warming up before mutating into a full-blown Worst Thing You’ve Ever Heard.) He seemingly forgot what strings are for, flubbed several notes in a row, and suddenly required ten MORE notes to complete a phrase that the original version pulled off in one.
Half the time, poor Stevie sounded like he was making crap up as he went along. And, as this article has made perfectly clear, Americans adore musicians who improvise around the musical representation of their proud nation. Go ahead and try it yourself. Maybe at a bar around 2 AM. You’ll be fine.
Jason Iannone is a humorist and editor for hire. His Facebook is a rockin’ party, and his Twitter is the awesome afterparty. Tumblr is where he rides out the hangover, and archives anything he writes from anywhere.
Jason discusses a group of drunks who would make for a very interesting Anthem, with Why Animal House Is the Only Good Frat Movie, and dove into the mind of somebody who should NEVER be allowed near the song with An Open Letter To The Weird Guy From Train.