America's national anthem is terrible. "The Star-Spangled Banner," a poem about the War of 1812 set to an English drinking song, is almost impossible to sing, requiring a nearly two-octave range from start to finish. It's also racist.
For many Americans, the conversation around "The Star-Spangled Banner" began in August, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem at the start of a game, in protest of police killings of unarmed black men. Since then Kaepernick's protest has spread both to his fellow players and to other teams across the country. It even put him on the cover of Time last week.
The ensuing controversy has focused mainly on what the national anthem represents — but it has also highlighted a troubling lyric in "The Star-Spangled Banner" itself. If most of us have missed it for all this time, it's probably because all four verses of the national anthem are rarely sung at sporting events, which is the only place where most Americans encounter it. What this means, in the end, is that we've been singing a song — or trying to — whose meaning we don't fully understand. The oft-forgotten third verse asks:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion, A home and a country, should leave us no more? Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave. In other stories we have crafted about ourselves, America is the refuge that saves the hireling and the slave. In the War of 1812, however, American slaves fought against their country because the British had promised them their freedom if they won. They didn't, and the song celebrating their crushing defeat is now our national anthem, though it only received this official designation in 1931.
There's no point in debating whether the national anthem is racist. It is. By celebrating the defeat of American slaves who fought to win their own freedom, the national anthem also celebrates slavery — and manages to do so in a way that also requires singers to celebrate America as "the land of the free." America's national anthem is, if by accident, a stinging indictment of America as a country whose citizens can simultaneously rob others of freedom while loudly proclaiming their own. It is a document that reveals us as clueless to the point of amnesia. Yes, it is an essential text in American history. That doesn't mean we have to sing it at ball games.
Called upon to name a replacement national anthem, many — John Legend among them — have suggested "America the Beautiful," which, along with "The Star-Spangled Banner," was America's unofficial national anthem, until a VFW petition led to "The Star-Spangled Banner" receiving official designation in 1931. This date alone speaks to how arbitrary a choice the song really is, and how possible it may be to replace it: Our national anthem is not an artifact handed down to us by the Founding Fathers, but is, in fact, younger than suffrage, younger than color television, younger than Audrey Hepburn and Mickey Mouse.
I spent this Fourth of July at a summer camp in South Carolina, and was already prepared to struggle through the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in air when the counselors instead led the campers in a rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." It's a beautiful song both for its simplicity — anyone can sing it — and for its intimacy. It doesn't tell a story about opposing forces, about battle, about what seemed to be good at one time conquering what seemed to be evil, and about preserving that sense of easy duality long after it has ceased to reflect the country we live in, if it ever really did. It describes not a sweeping, violence-torn vista, but a series of images:
As I went walking that ribbon of highwayI saw above me that endless skywaySaw below me the golden valleyThis land was made for you and me
I roamed and rambled and followed my footstepsTo the sparkling sands of her diamond desertsAll around me, a voice was sounding:This land was made for you and me.
We don't know anything about who the song's speaker is supposed to be: their race, their class, their gender, their sexuality — their nationality. The genius of the song is that its truth is not meant to hinge on any of these distinctions. And the voice that promises "This land was made for you and me" isn't speaking to anyone in particular, either: any conquering army, any victorious leader. This land was made for you, the song promises, if you give yourself to it. It is a song about America that doesn't use the word "America" a single time.
As much as I love "This Land is Your Land," though, my own personal nomination for our next national anthem is an even harder sell. Try as I might, I can't think of a better song to signify our national identity — to play as Olympians ascend the podium, to send ricocheting through football stadiums and teach to our schoolchildren — than Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain."
"The Chain," which was the centerpiece of Fleetwood Mac's 1977 album Rumours, is the only song on the record for which all five members receive credit. Rumours, infamously, was recorded during a period when the band seemed on the verge of collapse: Singer Stevie Nicks and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham broke up; singer Christine McVie and bass guitarist John McVie got divorced; everyone wrote songs about heartbreak, then made music with the people who had broken their hearts and whose hearts they had broken, because they were still the people they best knew how to make music with. "Shacking up is all you want to do," Lindsey Buckingham sang on "Go Your Own Way," a song about Stevie Nicks whose backing vocals were provided by Stevie Nicks. "You'll never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you," Stevie Nicks countered on "Silver Springs," a song that was cut from the record for time, and maybe, also, for its revelation that true love makes mournful witches of us all.
It's impossible to listen to Rumours without appreciating the power of its performers' yearnings and hostilities. Each song shimmers with the prismatic light of old loves, and is in the end a reminder that there is no such thing: Love is undiminished by time, if only we can allow ourselves to remember how it felt. Rumours won't let us forget. And "The Chain" — a song cobbled together from various demos and fragments until it belonged to everyone — seems especially determined to share this message. It's about the impossibility of staying together, and the impossibility of coming apart. It's violent and vulnerable, frightening in its energy and pitiful in its desperation, and it's somehow able to express both extremes in its chorus:
And if you don't love me now, you will never love me againI can still hear you saying you would never break the chain
When we think about our national anthem, we envision songs that celebrate our past, our ideals, our shining moments. But in 2016, exactly what it means to be an American is a reality too complex to shroud in visions of wartime victory. For many of us, being an American means living in a country where patriotism is used as a rationale for stifling freedom of thought, and where your gender identity, your sexuality, or your ethnicity can be condemned as fundamentally un-American. For these Americans — who may not be "the real Americans" but are today's Americans, and tomorrow's — "The Chain" is as accurate and as rousing a national anthem as anyone will ever write. If you don't love me now, you will never love me again, but I'm still here.