Yesterday, while Americans celebrated the 238th anniversary of our independence, hundreds of millions of people elsewhere in the world (and here too) celebrated the beginning of quarterfinal play at the FIFA World Cup. After a three-day break the world’s biggest sporting event resumed at Noon Eastern with the national anthems of France and Germany.
There’s nothing novel about opening a major sporting event with a national anthem. Here in the States we’ve been singing or playing our nation’s most revered song before big games and matches since World War II. It’s become an American tradition to entrust “The Star-Spangled Banner” to a performer. At the highest levels of American sport, teams and leagues enlist pop stars, classically trained vocalists, instrumentalists, or esteemed musical ensembles to deliver the anthem. But at the World Cup, an event that around 1 billion people tune in for, all we get is instrumental tracks played over the stadium PA.
Pressing play, instead of hiring Alicia Keys, Rene Rancourt or a children’s choir, may seem like a cheap cop out, but the end result is often more satisfying. “The Star Spangled Banner” at a major American sporting event often is a performance to which the fans and athletes are spectators. World Cup anthems, by contrast, are participatory. The instrumental track becomes accompaniment for the crowd and the players and coaches, who provide the vocals. Because of a FIFA rule allowing only 90 seconds per anthem, the track sometimes cuts off before the completion of the song, leaving fans and players to finish their country’s signature song a capella.
Consider, for example, the Brazilian national anthem, “Hino Nacional Brasileiro” (which is Portuguese for “Brazilian National Anthem”), prior to the host country’s Round of 16 match against Chile:
This sort of thing isn’t completely foreign to North American sports. During their team’s first round NBA Playoff series this year, Toronto Raptors fans took over vocal duties on “O Canada”:
Even when the vocalist or instrumentalist has the range and/or skill to hit every note with confidence, many solo performers seem to have an inescapable urge to make the anthem their own—peppering the song with embellishments, repeating phrases for emphasis, changing the time signature, getting cute with “the land of the free,” and so forth. (Granted, Whitney Houston changed the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4 for her famous rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV back in 1991 and that worked out OK.) I don’t fault famous recording artists for embellishing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They’ve been hired, based on their renown and unique talents, to perform for an audience. And an audience should expect a performer to take ownership of the piece and put his or her imprint on the piece he or she is performing.
But an anthem doesn’t belong to a performer or composer the way that other pieces of music do. It belongs to a collective, whether a nation or a school or a fan base. When we treat the singing or playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a performance, we turn its owners into passive consumers. Sure, fans and athletes are welcome to sing along, but their voices are lost beneath the voice that is being amplified. And, for every person who is singing along, there are likely many others who are completely disinterested.
So let’s consider eschewing the national anthem performer and instead opening our sporting events with an anthem that is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Instead of hiring the country or R&B artist du jour or calling up the local kid whose claim to fame is surviving the first round of America’s Got Talent auditions, let’s have the courage to press play and let the crowd do the rest.