In a nation increasingly rankled by identity politics, a little corporate singing might do us all a little good by reminding us that, here in America, like it or not, we’re still all in this thing together.
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!
Before Game 3 of the NBA Finals – and for the sixth time this postseason – the Cleveland Cavaliers chose not to have the national anthem performed by a soloist but rather sung by their fans.
On Tuesday night, one of America’s most honored ceremonies was begun by singer Jessica Ruiz, who started the first bar of “The Star Spangled Banner” and then invited all 20,000 fans in Quicken Loans Arena to sing with her. Ruiz then stepped away from the microphone while Cleveland did the rest.
Judging from the sound and the video, it wasn’t the most robust round of group singing I’ve ever witnessed, with a particular amount of young people not participating. Still, a number of fans did join in the chorus to make the anthem respectable, and you could tell that the crowd grew in fervor as the song moved toward its final strains. Better renditions notwithstanding, I could’t help but get excited about this effort because this kind of corporate singing is both a rarity and badly needed in our foundering pop culture.
In this, the Age of Entertainment, the idea of singing together as a people is almost completely lost on us. In the post-Whitney Houston era, Francis Scott Key’s most famous lines have routinely been taken away from the general public and given to soloists who tend to put an R&B spin on the least rhythm-n-blues-y song in America, leaving us all wondering what the national anthem is about, anyway.
This is a shame, because civic singing and civic songs are such an important part of forming a folk identity. Whether it’s the quickly-disappearing tradition of the religious black community in Negro Spirituals, or the recently revived singing of “Carmen Ohio” by the Ohio State football team at the end of each home game, I think each of us latently knows that corporate singing is vital to forming a strong sense of brotherhood.
I remember once being turned into a blubbering mess watching Swiss violinist Andre Rieux perform “Waltzing Matilda” at an outdoor concert in Melbourne. Even though he wasn’t singing, the audience was, and there was a solidarity in their voices that brought him to tears as he played. It was a spectacular moment as an elderly mother and her daughter, a young girl, a group of stoic bagpipers, all joined in the song (silly as it is) that truly expresses the history, culture, and ethos of Australia. It was a powerful moment to behold, even for non-Australians.
But few of us sing corporately anymore, and certainly not songs that create in us a sense of camaraderie and kinship. Apart from the occasional patriotic public concert or Christmas carol sing-a-long – like the one on the courthouse lawn in my hometown every December – the average American doesn’t sing in civic settings anymore. All of us, and especially Millennials, are more inclined to listen to a performer sing a well-known song than to try it ourselves.
Which may be one big reason why young people don’t sing the national anthem anymore: they don’t know the words. This seems ridiculous to suggest, since “The Star Spangled Banner” is the most ubiquitously sung song in American history (right after that other great hymn of civic virtue, “The YMCA” by The Village People). But when you don’t routinely sing the lyrics of a song you’re far less prone to commit them to memory. Try reciting “Dancing Queen” line-for-line and see if I’m right.
A few of us still sing in church, true, though fewer of us attend worship services each year, and those who do often have to put up with the insufferable “praise band”, which nearly always drowns out congregants’ voices. Some service clubs like Rotary still sing to open their meetings, though their selections can be a little hokey; I’ve seen some club hymnbooks with songs like “God Bless My Underwear” and “I’m Dreaming of the Great Pumpkin” alongside “The Battle Hymn of The Republic”. Still, let’s give them an ‘A’ for effort.
Gone are the days when “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, “Dixie”, or “We Shall Overcome” were the anthems of tens of millions of Americans. The songs both encapsulated ideas and spanned decades, giving everyone who sung them the sense that they were part of something bigger than themselves. “The Star Spangled Banner” has long been in that great American tradition and it deserves to keep being sung by the American people, not just a handful of our recording artists.
There are other places for diatribes on how pop culture strips us of a sense of folk history and corporate belonging by focusing us so strongly on the here-and-now and our individual desires, but suffice to say that we need now, more than ever, the kind of thing that the Cavs encouraged on Tuesday night. In a nation increasingly rankled by identity politics, and with new forms of cultural tribalism splintering our national identity a little more each day, a little corporate singing might do us all a little good by reminding us that, here in America, like it or not, we’re still all in this thing together.