Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest has sparked a series of discussions on different topics. Most focus on the appropriateness of his actions weighed against the issues where he is attempting to shed light.
A side topic, one that pops up every so often in pop culture and social media, is whether “The Star-Spangled Banner” is even worth the reverence we are supposed to afford it in the first place. It was written by a slaveholding amateur poet who set his amateur poem to a British social club tune that was widely bastardized and had lots of other lyrics tacked onto it. Its more obscure verses (there are four altogether) have some unsettlingly normalizing references to slavery.
So–in short, our national anthem was written by a hack, the music was stolen, and it’s hopelessly out-of-date. (I dare any of the folks burning Kaepernick’s jersey to tell me what a rampart is.) Further, while it memorializes the resilience of our nation in the face of adversity, it also sort of glorifies war in the process and speaks to an American experience that most of the people singing the song can’t relate to. The America we live and breathe in does not generally have bombs bursting in air.
In 1989, Janet Jackson had a nifty idea–create a reboot of the national anthem, updated for what’s important in the U.S. in the latter 20th century. She even went so far as to codename the album she was working on “The 1814 Project,” so named because that was the year Key wrote the other anthem. That name carried through to the final title of the album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. (To my mind, this is still the most awesome, spine-tingling album name of all time.) The title track, written by a trio of actual songwriters (Jackson, Jam & Lewis), became the second single from the album, reached #2 on the pop charts, and was accompanied by an eye-popping video that is singularly iconic in its stark, gestural choreography–half pop-locking, half military drill routine.
The album just celebrated its 27th birthday this past week. And, as it happened, I was discussing the Kaepernick protest with a good friend on Facebook when I, to lighten the mood, mentioned offhandedly that maybe if we had a better anthem, I’d be a little more offended about people protesting during it. “Can you write us one?” my friend asked. “Janet already did,” I replied.
It’s been a ha-ha-funny joke for the past 30 years that I take Janet Jackson WAY too seriously and that my ultimate fandom dictates that I lobby (against all good sense and reason) for “Rhythm Nation” to be the national anthem.
For the first time today, I wasn’t laughing.
I began reviewing the lyrics in my head. Each and every line is universal and speaks to the heart of what the United States of America has always, at least in principle, aspired to be. The musical genealogy of the song is brashly American (as opposed to Key’s British rip-off), with equal parts funk, R&B, pop, and hip-hop. As noted above, it’s nearly 30 years old, so it can now rightly be called a classic. And perhaps most importantly, the people who grew up listening to the song and being inspired by it are now middle-aged (or in my case, approaching middle age–ahem), so whatever we say has to be taken seriously.
So I’m dead-frickin-serious. This needs to be our national anthem:
With music by our side/to break the color lines/let’s work together to improve our way of life
Our nation has usually at least paid lip service to equality and inclusiveness. That needs to be institutionalized in our anthem. Explicitly acknowledging the role of music is another no-brainer; if we didn’t think music had the power to unite people, why would we go to the trouble of singing the same damn song before every sporting event or assembly? And people have historically come to the U.S. from other places to improve themselves, and in the process, improve us all collectively.
Join voices in protest/to social injustice/a generation full of courage come forth with me
Our nation was founded in protest of the injustice of British colonial rule. Nothing more American than that (except maybe magically switching gears and calling protest un-American when it makes us uncomfortable, which is the point of protesting in the first place). A good old fashioned rallying cry is also inherently anthemic.
People of the world today/Are we looking for a better way of life/We are a part of the rhythm nation
Hello!? Can’t you just hear thousands of people singing this in unison? So much more interactive than listening to Christina Aguilera apply super-deluxe histrionics to the word “glare.” [Editors Note: I adore Xtina, but she is an easy target when it comes to national anthem singing.]
People of the world unite/Strength in numbers we can get it right/We are a part of the rhythm nation
Unite! Strength! Right! Nation! What part of this is not screaming anthem?
This is the test/No struggle no progress/Lend a hand to help your brother do his best
This completes the checkbox for acknowledging difficulty and overcoming adversity. This is just about all the current one-note national anthem does. Janet dispatched it in one line. Plus, as a bonus, an ostensibly Christian virtue, helping one’s brother, is referenced without showing religious preference. Win-win.
Things are getting worse/We have to make them better/It’s time to give a damn/Let’s work together
OK, fine. These last lines are a little problematic. Problem one–we can’t have an anthem that forever has us bemoaning things getting worse. Simple fix–add the word “when” in front to make it conditional and therefore universal. “When things are getting worse, we have to make them better.”
Last problem is the word “damn,” which I suppose some people don’t want their children singing. I think that bit of prudishness is rapidly vanishing, though. It’s really almost a regular word nowadays, and usually excusable if used for emphasis–like in a rousing verse of a national anthem.
I admit this idea seems ludicrous in first imagining. We’re just so accustomed to the pacing of the maudlin battlefield melodrama of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” slowly building to a high note none of us can actually hit, resolving with a swift denouement. “Rhythm Nation” is a dance-pop record that some us can remember dancing to in our rooms when we were teenagers.
But it’s a song we can all sing. The message of the song is direct and speaks to things we can actually do after we leave the football game to show ourselves as good American citizens and world citizens. It also doesn’t require a dip in the energy of the events where it is sung–it can be reverent and rousing at the same time.
And to Colin Kaepernick’s point, it leverages and recognizes the value of protest in patriotism. Apparently a lot of Americans need a lesson in that.