As far as national anthems go, I would rank them in this order: Mel Brooks’s and Carl Reiner’s, French and then Russian.
La Marseillaise is great and all. Who doesn’t want to “water our fields” with the “impure blood” of their enemies every once in a while? And the Russians have written a tune that really sets the mood during the launch of an atomic submarine.
But Brooks and Reiner came up with the perfect distillation of an anthem’s purpose in their Interview With the 2,000-Year-Old Man comedy sketch.
Brooks: “It wasn’t nations back then. It was caves. Each cave had a national anthem.”
Reiner: “Do you remember the national anthem of your cave?”
Brooks: “I certainly do: ‘Let 'em all go to hell/Except Cave 76,’ ”
Anthems can create lovely moments of national unity, which doesn’t make them any less ridiculous. They are an excuse for people to remind each other how awesome they are. In any other context, we wouldn’t call this patriotism. We’d call it conceit.
Not a few historic anthems boil down to, ‘We’re coming for you.’ They’re the soundtrack that kicks up just before the invasion.
You can still see the sense of them in some contexts – high occasions of state, military processions, the Olympics (where the lyrics are wisely left out).
But most North Americans are familiar with their anthem in a singular context – pro sports – wherein they don’t make a lot of sense.
What’s the United States or Canada got to do with the San Jose Sharks versus the Vancouver Canucks? Why are the Russians and Swedes expected to stare up at the flag like they’re getting ready to deploy to Gallipoli?
The combining of anthems and sports began during the 1918 World Series as a piece of spontaneous marketing. There wasn’t much of a crowd that year because, you know, the First World War and all. The few in attendance were apparently not super into the game.
So during the seventh-inning stretch, a military band started up The Star Spangled Banner – which was not yet the official U.S. anthem. The crowd was moved to a standing ovation. So the band did it again during the next game. And the next. And it became a thing.
The practice spread organically in years to follow. By the Second World War, nearly all of baseball had jumped on the anthem wagon. (Presumably, the practice did not spread into Europe because they were too busy killing each other to worry about the logistical prelims before soccer matches.)
Designed for use in war, anthems continued to proliferate in sports during the relative peace that followed. Eventually, they became ubiquitous. Then they became a public loyalty test. Hat off? Hand on heart? Glistening eyes? Then you’re doing it right.
I’ve sat through a lot of anthems on the job and have seen a lot of weirdness during them. Fans yelling at other fans to stand up straighter. Crowds booing singers because a rendition didn’t hit their standard. There’s a famous press-box story about a journo freaking out on two colleagues because they’d continued a conversation during The Star Spangled Banner.
This does not include knuckleheads who boo the other country’s anthem, or the French section in their own. This is what happens when you start confusing spectator sports – where jeering is encouraged – with national pride. People lose sight of the line between them.
For some thoughtful athletes, this uncritical embrace of the goals and policy of the country they happen to work in didn’t sit right. Not much a shocker, yet we all pretended to be shocked.
This outrage when, say, Carlos Delgado decides he’d like to sit during that part of the ceremonies might lead us to wonder what an anthem is actually about. Geographic territory? The people who live in it? Their history? Their predecessors? The government that represents them? The ones who used to? All of those things? Just some of them?
It gets confusing in a hurry.
Perhaps this is why people are so brittle when it comes to any implied criticism of their anthem – because they’re not sure if that means someone is criticizing them. (Hint: If you’re thinking that, they probably are.)
This uncertainty makes the anthem a perfect forum for protest. You could walk around city hall all day with your fist raised in the air and people will think you’re trying to hail a cab. But do it while the tubas are going before council sits and people will wig right out.
Protests are about attention. The more attention, the more effective the protest.
This was what made Colin Kaepernick’s protest so aesthetically brilliant. It inverted the patriotic cliché about never getting down on your knees. People paid attention to that.
It took a few years, but some of those people now seem ready to have a more nuanced conversation about what the anthem means in the context of pro sports.
And, eventually, one hopes they will get to the obvious answer – nothing.
Anthems have no place in professional sports, any more than a reading of the latest bill being put before Parliament. The anthem is meant to rally us – whoever us means to you – together. It is, by necessity, exclusionary. It’s a bat signal for the residents of Country X.
If Commissioner Gordon lit off the lamp on top of police HQ every night of the week, Batman would rapidly lose interest in this whole crime-fighting thing.
Say this much for the anthem in its early stadium days – it was sung by Americans for Americans playing in front of Americans in America.
Once you’ve watered it down so that it’s a bunch of European millionaires staring half-glazed into the middle distance through O Canada every second night, it hasn’t lost its meaning. No, what it’s done is taken on all sorts of meanings. It can mean anything. Or nothing. Take your pick. It’s just another song. It’s your two-minute warning.
These days, the fans at Fenway get a lot more excited about Neil Diamond then they do about their country’s Sacred and Never to be Profaned Ballad. Based on how this trend began, maybe Sweet Caroline should be the new national song of Boston. Maybe it already is.
You can’t eliminate the anthems now, during all this tumult. That would seem too much like panic or pandering. But their traditional place in front of every single ho-hum game in every league at every level ought to be phased out gradually.
Take a hint from the rest of the world. If you like the anthem so much, save it for occasions a lot more special than professional sports.