My Fellow Americans,
Beginning on August 8th, the world will descend upon Beijing like tanks on student protestors for the games of the XXIX Olympiad. And though our economy and foreign policy are a shambles and our national mood is out back behind the Safeway huffing spray paint out of a paper bag, the summer games still represent an opportunity for America to flex its HGH-enhanced muscles and kick sand on the 98-pound weaklings of the globe (until the Chinese win more gold medals than we do, lending credence to the whole post-American world thing even among people not already aware that China like owns our national debt or something).
So, you’re going to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” a lot this August.
Except, as Tony Kushner once said, the white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it.
Yes, my friends, our national anthem blows, and so for the remainder of this week I’m going to spotlight various alternate possibilites in a special thelmagazine.com Olympic edition of that evergreen July 4th-timed pick-the-new-national-anthem [because everybody likes lists and riffs and also we can bank this early and take off work for the holiday] feature.
Hey, guess what, this is actually something I wrote for this magazine more than three years ago, to coincide with a July 4th repertory screening of Nashville:
“Let’s consider our National Anthem.” Okay, let’s. “Nobody knows the words. Nobody can sing it. Nobody understands it.” This is Hal Philip Walker, disembodied voice of the disenfranchised, the Replacement Party Candidate hovering throughout Robert Altman’s staggeringly essential bicentennial epic Nashville (at Moving Image on Independence Day weekend). “It doesn’t allow half as much patriotic emotion as ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’. (The next few sentences are inaudible amid the sound of several cars colliding)… because a lawyer wrote the words, and a judge wrote the tune.”
Altman is appropriating the perpetual it’s-the-July-4th-issue-let’s-pick-a-new-national-anthem feature from music sections nationwide; Nashville suggests an alternative, too — just not the one it thinks it does. Though the long zoom-out that accompanies a bewildered crowd in the hymn of denial “It Don’t Worry Me” is the film’s grand concluding statement, it’s the song preceding it that deserves “Play ball!” tacked onto its end.
By the time country star Barbara Jean (played by Ronee Blakley) gets on stage at the Walker rally that marks the convergence of nearly all of the film’s two dozen primary cast members — future fictional candidate Michael Murphy as an unpindownable, subtly condescending political operative more accurate now than ever; Geraldine Chaplain as a BBC correspondent whose demented non-sequiturs prefigure the finer moments of Toni Schlesinger’s “Shelter” column in the Village Voice, etc., etc. — she’s been hospitalized, bossed around, and had her self-assurance worn down to nothing. And then, in Nashville’s Centennial Park, underneath an American flag so big it looks like it’s about to swallow her up, she finds something left to believe in: “My Idaho Home” (Blakley, who was in fact born in Idaho, wrote the song, as most of the film’s cast did for their characters), a song of mistily recollected ideals and reconstructed nostalgia: “We young then, we were together/We could bear floods and fire and bad weather/And now that I’m older, grown up on my own/I still love Mom and Daddy best, my Idaho home.” It’s a lie, fueled by disappointment- the lyrics acknowledge as much- but the singing of white-clad, beatific Blakley turns everybody Altman’s camera picks up into some part of “home”. That he then sabotages the moment so brutally is best evidence of its potency: what happens to Barbara Jean after “My Idaho Home” shatters an innocence we didn’t even know we still had. Can “The Star-Spangled Banner” do that?
Another song or two tomorrow. I welcome your suggestions in the comments, or my inbox.