O! Say can you sing?

Many times a year, the greater sports-entertainment community (and world for that matter) gathers for a series of ostentatious sporting spectacles unseen by mankind since the times of ancient Rome. But before the Super Bowl, March Madness, BCS Championship, World Series, NBA All-Star Game, Stanley Cup, MLS CUP, Daytona 500, or (Insert your Sporting Event Here) starts, the throngs of opposing fans join together solemnly like the Peanuts at the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, for what they hope is a stirring rendition of our national anthem. At least, that's what's supposed to happen. Our national anthem has been in the news quite a bit lately, for reasons both good and bad.

A few weeks ago, we lost the artist who arguably gave us the most memorable performance of the Star Spangled Banner in popular culture history.

Mary J. Blige turbulently made it through her performance of the anthem at the 2012 NBA All-Star game this past weekend until she decided to go all-in and lose the farm on the last note.

Steven Tyler, technically made it through his performance A-OK at the Patriots/Ravens playoff game this past year minus a flub on one word. However no one heard that since some jerk strangled a cat the entire time he sang.

And last but certainly not least, I'm sure you all remember when Cristina Aguilera decided to ride an unbalanced washing machine while simultaneously gargling soda and Pop Rocks at Super Bowl 45.

With American's perceived inability to properly get through our national anthem, its no wonder why Vegas now has a betting line on whether or not performers can get through it.

In the mess that has become SSB performances, KELLY Clarkson has become the "Go-To GIRL" I'd say she didnt disappoint this year!

But why is it so hard to sing a song that most of us learned to sing in Kindergarten?


The Music: No less a musical authority than Frank Sinatra once said the anthem was "a terrible piece of music. If you took a poll among singers, it would lose a hundred to nothing." The reason? The anthem isn't a song at all, but rather a poem, written by Francis Scott Key during the British bombing of Baltimore's Fort McHenry in 1814, and rife with tricky phrasing and stumble-worthy words. For instance, "perilous." "Try saying that three times, let alone singing it," said Sharelle Smith, who once sang the anthem at an NBA game. "'Through the perilous fight' is supposed to be one phrase. But it's very hard to do."

Musically, the anthem is based on an old English drinking song, spanning an extra-wide vocal range of an octave and a half. As such, many singers can't hit both the high and the low notes. And even those who can sometimes struggle to find the right key. "It's difficult to place it in your voice and start off on the correct note," said singer Marilyn Paige, who has performed the anthem at sports events and for President Clinton at a 1998 event. "You want to start on a note that won't make the low notes too low to hit, or your high notes so shrill you give the people in the nosebleed section a hemorrhage."

The average voice has a range of two octaves, or roughly the amount of notes seen on the piano graphic below. The Star Spangled Banner roughly requires the same range, encompassing notes that go down to the bottom of one's vocal register up into the rafters.

If the SSB were an Athletic event, it would be the IronMan competition. The Words: If the words themselves seem kinda long winded and superfluous, its because they lyrics aren't a song at all. They're a poem. Written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, "Defense of Fort M.Henry' became a staple tale of heroism during the War of 1812. The words gained much popularity, and shortly thereafter, were set to a popular British droning song, "To Anacreon in Heaven."

I'd imagine a bunch of drunk soldiers in the 1800's didn't sound this lovely, but you get the point. Wait. So you mean to tell me our National Anthem, the very musical symbol of our strength and fortitude as a country has a tune that is based on a song drunk people used to sing all of the time? The practice was pretty common place up until the mid-part of the 20th century.

In order to get people to learn, and build affinity to songs of meaning quicker, songwriters would often 'borrow' the tunes of popular songs. So if average drunk folk could sing the song just fine in the 1800's then why can't supposedly sober professionals sing it now?

Having done it many times myself, I'd say it's a combination of nerves, degree of musical difficulty, repetitive nature of the lyrics, did I mention the nerves supported by butchering the most beloved song our country knows, and for some, the desire to show off doing something thats hard enough as it is.

So in summary, singing the Star Spangled Banner is like handling a chainsaw: you might be able talented and brave enough to juggle two or three, but do us all a favor and avoid the bloody mess by just using it the way it was meant to be used--quick, safe and to the point.

Add new comment