As it was rather soggy last night, our local fireworks display was cancelled. We ended up all gathered around the boob tube watching A Capitol Fourth on PBS, which is the big celebration on the National Mall. The first performer was a 17-year-old actress named Hayden Panettiere singing "The Star-Spangled Banner".
As I understand it, Miss Panettiere is a starlet trying to make the transition to recording artist. She sounds like just about every other starlet who wants to sing, which is to say undistinguished and poppy. These are not the right kind of vocal chops with which to attack the National Anthem, a tune that is almost unsingable anyway. Before being borrowed to provide the musical setting for Francis Scott Key's poem, the tune was originally the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a club of music lovers who met in London in the 17th century. Though not a drinking song, as is popularly rumored, "this absence of an official connection to drinking did not keep the song from being associated with alcohol, as it was commonly used as a sobriety test: If you could sing a stanza of the notoriously difficult melody and stay on key, you were sober enough for another round."
To Miss Panettiere: Oh my dear, I understand how exciting it is to be 17 and on top of the world. You have dreams and ambitions and the agents who can make these dreams a financial reality. In a few years, when your voice has matured and you've attained a bit more gravitas, the National Anthem will still be there. Don't worry; you didn't hurt it seriously. It's a tough song, and tends to inflict more damage than it takes.
To the producers of A Capitol Fourth: Are you out of your frickin' minds? This is our National Anthem, not the next poplet hit. Some songs are important enough to be sung skillfully yet simply. Next year try scouring the nation's opera houses for some young talent who can not only belt it out, but stay on key at the same time. It's a lot to ask in these degenerate days, but that's why they pay you the big money.
Learning Notes Week of January 9
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