When it comes to celebrity renditions of the national anthem, examples of "what so proudly we hailed" seem a lot less common than examples of "the perilous fight." Just look at the backlash against Alicia Keys' version of the tune before the Super Bowl if you want a good example of bombs bursting in air.
Alicia Keys... creative anthem champ or dirge singer? (Getty Images)The immediate reaction to her languid and jazz-influenced take on "The Star Spangled Banner" from fellow singers as well as critics seemed almost universally positive. "One of the great renditions," tweeted Elisabeth Hasselbeck. "Yes lawd," gushed Spike Lee, suddenly getting religion. Keys "killed it," declared Idol judge Randy Jackson.
But then the general public had its say... and there were plenty of naysayers to complain that Alicia Keys had somehow betrayed Francis Scott Key.
Suddenly Keys found herself joining a not-so-exclusive club of stars who've been excoriated for tackling The Anthem, whether they were similarly polarizing, a la Christina Aguilera and Beyonce, or universally alienating, a la Steven Tyler and Roseanne Barr.
Reader responses to Yahoo! Music's initial positive coverage of Keys' anthem were more dismissive, or angry, than laudatory. "Stop trying to make the national anthem 'your own'," said one of the most popular reactions on the site. "It's not yours. It's ours collectively. Sing it the way it's supposed to be sung." Later, the same user added, "I never meant to imply she wasn't a great musician or that she butchered the song in any way. I just feel the National Anthem is one song that should be performed the way it was written and artists shouldn't try and use it as an opportunity to top the iTunes charts the next morning."
Within five hours, that diss had 1,098 thumbs-ups on Yahoo!, and only 225 thumbs-down.
Another reader wrote: "One of the worst anthem renditions I have ever seen or heard. What a funeral durge. Too slow." Hours later, this slam had a similarly imbalanced ratio of 1,058 thumbs in agreement and 248 in opposition.
Dissenting pro-Keys commenters responded in kind: "So...you are basically saying, 'The song belongs to all of us— now do it the way I want.'"
But some would just as soon take the anthem out of the hands of celebrities in general, to end the alleged showboating. "Forget having all these music industry celebrities sing the national anthem from now on," wrote a commenter. "Let's have our military personnel sing it. They will sing it the proper way, and not will all the other b.s. added to it."
The too-many-notes criticism is a common one, with no one getting more brickbats on that score than the pathologically melismatic Christina Aguilera, who never met a syllable she couldn't make span several seconds and octaves. Of course, muffing the words to the song two years ago didn't help... although maybe that cautionary case helped Beyonce opt to go with a pre-recording at last month's inauguration.
Beyonce was also accused of over-singing it, even though it turned out that all that seemingly spontaneous riffing was being mimed. Ditto with Whitney Houston, who did one of the best-loved renditions ever, yet caught some flack when it turned out her in-the-moment improvisations were laid down earlier in a recording studio.
By that standard, you might have thought that people would like Keys' more low-key version more, since she was not so much into the note-stretching shenanigans. Yet somehow Alicia managed to get accused of both over-singing it and under-singing it. She showboated a bit at the very end, but her main sins, for some folks, seemed to be that she messed with the melody and pitch and slowed it down to a reflective crawl. Congratulations for the fact that she not only sang but played the piano live, in a nerve-wracking environment, were few when it came to impatient football fanatics.
There was some betting about whether Keys would finish up in over or under a certain time, so some of her detractors may have been angry at losing some money. Her slow-and-steady version lasted 2 minutes and 40 seconds, more than a minute longer than the 1:34 quickie that Kelly Clarkson turned in at the Super Bowl last year. Even Aguilera, with all her vocal gymnastics, had come in a few seconds shy of two minutes.
"I think I have time for a quick three mile jog before the game starts," tweeted Los Angeles Times writer Joe Flint as Keys' anthem was drawn out.
"Alicia Keys is still on the field with piano," Steve Martin wisecracked on Twitter after the game got underway.
Some Yahoo! commenters had similar concerns with the pace and length. "I liked it, but she was supposed to be pumping them up, not making a lullaby," wrote one user. Another reader, reacting to Yahoo!'s praise: "'Soulful,' yeah—we all almost died waiting for the song to end. How in the world do you take a 2 minute song and turn it into 8 minutes? No one could sing along with her"—another criticism that raises the controversy of whether the anthem is meant to be a sing-along or a solo performance piece. A different reader spoke for many in saying: "Tradition should be honored by singing the song in the upbeat style of an anthem—not a funeral dirge."
It's truly a no-win proposition if some performers get accused of making the anthem too giddy and fun, and then Keys gets knocked for playing it for solemnity.
Some pundits felt Keys picked the correct way to go right after the sobering sight of a children's chorus from Newtown, accompanying Jennifer Hudson on "America the Beautiful."
Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot compared Keys' arrangement to a famous reading of the song that Marvin Gaye did at the NBA All-Star Game in 1983.
"Seated at a white grand piano, Keys offered a blues and jazz-tinged version of the technically demanding song," wrote Kot. "Like Gaye, she made the song seem fragile, even poignant, the intimacy undercutting any threat of the showboating that sank Christina Aguilera’s interpretation two years ago. There are many ways to perform the anthem – Kelly Clarkson belted out a concise, fat-free version in 1:34 at last year’s Super Bowl. But Keys certainly delivered one of the best of recent vintage. Its tone was appropriate given what preceded it..."
But do we want "interpretation" of the tune, or fidelity? And if so, faithfulness to what? "Why can't these singers just sing our national anthem as it is supposed to be sung," a Yahoo! reader commented, "the way it was written by Francis Scott Key!"
Naturally, others were quick to chime in and note that Scott Key had nothing to do with the melody that Keys supposedly took undue license with. "To all the idiots....the Star Spangled Banner is a POEM....NOT a song," wrote a commenter. "The melody that we all know is from an old Irish drinking song. Mr. Scott Key is rolling in his grave because some jackass decided to ruin his work by putting in some impossibly high notes and bad meter."
Now, that's a very minority opinion that can only be whispered in polite society, if uttered at all: that the anthem is such an unwieldy combination of unrelated words and music that it is a punishment, not a gift, for singers, especially faithful ones. But don't get caught saying that, lest you get locked in a cell where Scott Stapp's version from a 2005 NASCAR championship is playing in endless rotation.
One man's travesty is another man's triumph, so one of the highly original versions we're most partial to, the arrangement performed by Josh Groban and Flea (!) in 2010, shows up on Billboard magazine's list of "the 10 worst national anthem performances ever."
What would Francis Scott Key say if he could hear all these contemporary versions? Probably this: "Dudes, why'd you cut my second, third, and fourth versions?" If you didn't like Keys' drawn-out version, count your blessings that no one is doing it the true Scott Key way.