Two hundred years after that long night in Baltimore, is it time to rethink the Star-Spangled Banner? It has its merits—to drown out bad news with bluster, brass and percussion worked in 1814, and the song continues to radiate personality, even as most of us try and fail to sing along with its awkward leaps over one-and-half octaves. It feels right that the city that gave us Hairspray also surrendered this essential bit of national theater. The music has entered so deeply into our consciousness that even its parodies can seem beautiful—much as the Jimi Hendrix version, inflammatory at the time, has acquired a great dignity of its own.
But the story of Key’s nearness to slavery cannot easily be forgotten, especially in an era that demands more accountability, and offers to tools to find it. Critics over the years—I am hardly the first—have been brutal about the Star-Spangled Banner’s many shortcomings. The New York Herald Tribune dismissed it as “words that nobody can remember [set] to a tune that nobody can sing.” In 1918, a woman named Kitty Cheatham denounced the words as “German propaganda” (because they undermined the Anglo-American alliance), and saw the music as a product of “darkness,” “degeneracy,” and “the carnal mind.” Christian Science leader Augusta Stetson called it a “barroom ballad composed by a foreigner.” A 1965 writer thought it “as singable as Die Walkure, as American as ‘God Save the Queen’”; the columnist Michael Kinsley has ripped its “empty bravado” and “mindless nonsense about rockets and bombs.”
Perhaps—like Old Glory herself—the unsingable song is here to stay. But if not, we have a worthy contender waiting in the wings: “America the Beautiful,” a stirring piece of music, easily sung and irrefutably composed by U.S. citizens.