Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Happy and Glorious

It was only when One of the UK's Leading Jazz Singers started with the whole star-spangled banner business that the cream of New York's British expats realised they should have been singing along. Personally, I felt vindicated. Mine had been one of the few reedy voices piping along politely to our own great national anthem, desperate to prove I knew all the words. As, I saw with relief, did Prince Edward. Jolly good show.

But listening to the pomp and circumstance of the more lustily voiced American song, I started to wonder whether the differences in our great nations may in fact have been encapsulated in the lyrics of the songs closest to their heart. While my first thought was to compare Girls Aloud's Maneater with Britney's Womaniser, neither song seemed forthcoming (even in a pleasant blues-lite arrangement) so I plumped for the national anthems instead. Admittedly it's a long time since I did a comparative practical criticism, but you don't have to be smugged-up English student to hear the contrast between:

God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us;
God save the Queen!


Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Basically, the first is bigging up the Queen (rightly so, given that we were singing it on her official birthday and the decided lack of candles for one to blown out) while the second is aggrandising the singers themselves (the self-styled Free and Brave). Now leaving aside the questionable taste of leaving the word "brave" to resonate at the end of the verse - with all its connotations of the native American tribes whose manifest destiny it was to be wiped out by smallpox and perfidious treaties - there's something very striking about the American song's line endings. While both of the English lines finish with an emphatic exclamation, three of the four star-spangled sentences end in question marks. It's as if the song needs to be constantly iterated in order to answer its own rhetorical questions about nationhood.

Then there's the language itself. Compare the way that Queen is made to rhyme with, well, Queen (could anything be more fitting?), while the other lines all end in a an "-us". Brainwashing 101: the Queen (bless her!) and "us" are inextricably linked... only the Queen comes first, as is only natural. By contrast, the US version is like any American TV remake: glossier, flashier, better teeth. Here the "bite", if you will (stop groaning at the back!)comes from the intrusion of the realities of war ("rockets" and "guns") into a ceremonial song. The same topic is only hinted at in the other song via that very English word "victorious" (with it's acquired echoes of Empire). In terms of being glossier and flashier, you only have to look at the latinate words and self-conscious poetics of the US verse. The language is quite literally "gleaming" and "streaming", as its fanciest rhyming pair would have it.

But before I can engage anyone in a heated intellectual debate along these lines, the canape waitress floated past, and all thoughts of linking gerunds to geography flew out of my head as I set off, elbows ruthlessly bared, to hunt down those sausage rolls.

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