Christina Aguilera’s bluesy ornamented version of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XLV has reignited controversy over appropriate performances of the national anthem of the United States. While it is her lyrical indiscretions that have sparked debate (she mangles line 4 of Key’s original—”O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?” and substitutes words taken from across the poem—”What so proudly we watched, at the twilight’s last gleaming”), in the history of the anthem, this error is not especially egregious—at least she keeps going…
More interesting to me is Aguilera’s musical interpretations—the changes in dynamics, vocal color, ornamentation, and even to the expected melodic contour—that communicate and intensify ideas in and behind the lyrics.
Aguilera sings without accompaniment, no instrumental backing track enforces rhythmic regularity or standard harmony.* But for a few tiny pauses to take extra breaths, she sings the opening phrase straight, at least until “[ear]-ly light” on which she offers quick melodic ornaments that decorate the expected pitches. Next she hits the word “proudly” with a dynamic swell, and emphasizes patriotic pride—both national and personal. Gentle ornaments then articulate the words “hailed,” “twilight’s,” and “gleaming,” while Aguilera brings down the volume to the deeply intimate, covered sound of her opening line. Lines 3 and 4 follow the same trajectory, with her dynamic power celebrating the word “stars.”
Aguilera really opens up, and appropriately so, in line 5, where Key’s lyric becomes more dramatic and reports the glare and bursts of British canon that attacked Baltimore’s Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14, 1814. The fortitude and resolve of the more than one thousand troops that defended the fort that day is signaled by the anthem melody at this point. It shifts up in tessitura, making the anthem hard for many to sing. Here, to hit these notes the song literally requires more power and strength from the voice as Aguilera’s increase in volume reveals. She exaggerates this sonic symbolism further by holding onto the word “glare,” extending the pitch and removing her vibrato to cut through the air; no ornaments soften the bombs’ blows. Here, Aguilera’s tone is aurally blinding, it glares as sound! And the crowd cheers, fans getting the message about American courage in the face of danger.
On “‘Gave…’ proof through the night,” Aguilera digs deep into her voice producing a gutteral resolve that carries the melody to victory. Ornamentation returns on the word “night,” and she varies the melodic contour to draw attention to the lyric’s signal of triumph—that “our flag was still there.”
Aguilera’s intensity increases through the final pair of lines, the crowd increasing in volume—both anticipating the end of the song and the beginning of the game. On “yet wave” Aguilera startles the expected melody by skipping up a third and (possibly taking a cue from Hendrix) illustrates the movement of the flag with extended, heavy vibrato. The sound literally “waves,” as does the image of Key’s lyric in the listener’s mind.
For the final climactic line, Aguilera takes dramatic breaths before “free” and especially the final word “brave”—the final word celebrating the key to America’s victory in Baltimore and thus receiving all the dramatic force and momentum of her entire performance. Here she uses most of the emphatic musical tricks featured so far (gutteral power, the glare of no vibrato warming into a rich vocal wave, heightened melodic pitches, and ornamentation) to give the song an inspired and inspiring finish. She raises her hand to the heavens, emphasizing that she’s given all she’s got as a musician while welcoming the arrival of four military jets, which add their own patriotic (and deafeningly) mark of exclamation.
While Aguilera’s performance is certainly virtuosic, celebrating her own vocal gifts and musical talents (and no doubt she hopes to make new fans and sell some recordings as a result of her Super Bowl exposure), her changes to the tune are born not simply of ego, but stem from the music and text of the anthem itself. Like the jets’ dramatic flyover at the song’s climax—Aguilera’s artistry serves to deepen the meaning of the song and communicate an intense patriotism to her listeners across the nation and, indeed, around the globe.
Like José Feliciano at the 1968 World Series in Detroit, Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and (I’d even argue ) Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, Aguilera’s musical rendition connects to a longstanding tradition of performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” to heighten and intensify the ideas behind the song. Indeed, the very first to be so inspired by patriotism to burst forth into lyric ecstasy was Francis Scott Key himself, who, held aboard ship by America’s British attackers for the duration of the battle, lived through the anxiety and then emotional release of victory that inspired the pride and celebration of our nation’s anthem.
* Any producers who wish to enforce a regular (if potentially less inspired) version of the anthem need just provide a standard recorded backing track to accompany a singer’s performance. An accompaniment also serves to discipline a performance.