Last week, prior to game seven of the NBA championship, pop star Christina Aguilera took her turn at publicly butchering our national anthem. She didn’t really sing anything. She shouted out the words and screamed as loud as she could, barely reaching the note everyone was waiting to hear. She seemed relieved when she was finished. Weren’t we all.
She joins a long list of performers who also have demeaned our national anthem, most notably Frank Sinatra and Roseanne Barr. Sinatra couldn’t even remember the words. In 1990, the Cincinnati Reds hired Barr to sing the national anthem before a home game against the San Diego Padres. Of course, she couldn’t sing and jokingly half-talked her way through her presentation. The public was outraged and her popularity has declined ever since. Barr defended herself, reminding everyone she is a comedienne, not a rock star. She quipped to a reporter, “At least I remembered the words.”
In 1932, President Herbert Hoover officially declared “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem. Other hymns such as “Hail Columbia” and “My Country ’Tis of Thee” also were considered. In the 1940s, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” sung by Kate Smith was considered our unofficial wartime anthem.
Prior to 1968, the national anthem was performed in its traditional form. But that all changed 20 minutes before game five of the 1968 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers.
The play-by-play announcer for the Tigers was Ernie Harwell. He was in charge of finding performers to sing the national anthem before their home games. At the time, Jose Feliciano had a hit with “Light My Fire” and was performing in Las Vegas with Sinatra. Harwell invited the blind celebrity from Puerto Rico to sing the anthem.
While standing alone in left field before 54,000 fans with his dog, Trudy, by his side and with guitar in hand, Feliciano sang his own Puerto Rican style rendition of our anthem. Some baseball fans applauded. Most people in the stands jeered and booed Feliciano before he exited the field. The phones started ringing at the stadium. Channel 4, televising the game nationwide, was inundated with complaints throughout the game. Everyone was outraged. Harwell said he liked the version and didn’t see anything wrong with it and almost was fired over the incident. Feliciano later apologized.
In defense of Feliciano, he always appreciated the opportunities and success he enjoyed in this country. He took advantage of the World Series appearance to thank all Americans for his success. In his heart, he wanted to share his love for our country through his own cultural, creative, upbeat rendition of our national anthem. He didn’t mean to insult anyone and never understood why everyone was upset.
The Feliciano website describes the country as divided in 1968. There was no end in sight to the Vietnam War. Both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated and the “younger generation didn’t trust anyone over 30.” Race, gender, class and age discrimination were evident in neighborhoods, the workplace and even on the battlefield.
The politics and anti-social attitudes of the younger generation were new and different. They challenged the traditional views of their parents. Their social behavior, the way they dressed and their long hair aggravated and intimidated the generation that knew wars, worked hard and survived tough times. But, like every new generation, it’s their music that reflects and creates the widest divide between the old and new generation. Feliciano’s appearance just emphasized the cultural differences.
To me, Jose Feliciano’s 1968 recording of the national anthem wasn’t that offensive. As a matter of fact, I thought it was performed with an honest, heartfelt reverence and the traditional respect it deserves. However, because the presentation wasn’t reflective of the traditional American style, the majority of Americans were irate.
Speaking now from the view of the old generation, all Americans should be irate with pop stars and celebrities of the new generation who, like Aguilera, use their so-called artistic license to create a new tradition of disrespect for our flag, irreverence for our heritage and mockery of country by butchering our nation’s hymn of pride, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist. The polemics of his articles can be discussed at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is www.thefarsidechronicles.com.