February Diary
On the national anthem, bilingualism, and more.

Whitney Houston sings the National Anthem prior to Super Bowl XXV.


John Derbyshire

Nothing happened     February was one of those months when nothing much happened, and when what did happen was in news zones of zero interest to me.

For a guy whose first daily encounter with the news is the morning delivery of his paper-edition New York Post, the three names dominating the month were Whitney Houston (died), Timothy Dolan (made a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church), and Jeremy Lin (helped his basketball team to an unexpected string of victories).

I’ve paid no attention to pop music since about 1975, and never paid attention to soul music at all, so Whitney Houston was barely a name. I’m not a Roman Catholic, and in fact still nurse traces of the mildly anti-Catholic sentiments you get, or used to get, with an English upbringing. I’m pretty much a sports black hole even in regard to the sports I grew up among, and basketball wasn’t even one of them.

(Girls, and only girls, in 1950s England used to play a game called Netball, but I think it’s a different thing. As with the anti-Catholic prejudices, though, it’s hard to shake off early impressions, and I still think of games that involve throwing balls through netted hoops as girly.)

Well, jolly good luck to Timothy Dolan in doing whatever it is cardinals do. May Jeremy Lin throw many, many more balls through netted hoops. And proper condolences to those left grieving by Whitney Houston’s passing. Now, what the hell am I going to write about?

The over-sung anthem     Here’s a thought, off on a tangent from Whitney Houston’s passing.

A friend — a conservative friend! — sent me the YouTube video of Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem for the 1991 Super Bowl. He: “Tell me you can sit dry-eyed through this!

I didn’t just sit dry-eyed through it, I sat through it with rising irritation. No offense to Whitney’s memory: She was just a kid following a trend. It’s a trend, though, that I deplore.

The issue here is: How should the National Anthem be sung? For my taste, it should be sung straightforwardly, strictly according to the score, by a well-trained voice. Kate Smith — fine. Robert Merrill — even finer. Sung like that, “The Star-Spangled Banner” expresses the austere republican gravity appropriate to a nation of free citizens under fair, simple laws. Republicanism is Doric, not Ionian, and definitely not Corinthian.

In recent years, though, a new way of singing the National Anthem has come up, a style that smothers the thing in grace notes, glissandi, rubato, appoggiature, acciaccature, and probably other kinds of musical embellishments the names of which I do not know.

This I deplore. Whitney Houston’s 1991 rendering was in that style. Austere republican gravity? It sounded more like rococo Austro-Hungarian frivolity. Give me Kate Smith any time.