Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Frayed Anthems: When Creativity Scandalized America

April 2 of last year was a dark day for The Star-Spangled Banner. That week the internet buzzed with so many outraged voices that you’d almost think the flag was burned. But the only thing that was burned was The Fray’s sloppy rendition of the American national anthem into the ears of thousands of listeners in New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome just before last year’s NCAA National Championship.

Aside from what seemed like a breakdown of communication between the two guitar players involving the (unconventional and extremely dissonant) voicing of a IV chord, The Fray’s take on the anthem is actually not too bad as far as being musically interesting goes. But it brought out the ugly in the clamor of voices online. Several reporters included this version in the ranks of the worst renditions of the national anthem ever. One colorfully described it as “a version that made you want to curl up in the corner and drunk text an ex.” In the words of another reporter, “The Denver rock band tried to rework the 198-year-old song into a modern hipster version and failed in every respect.”

Ouch. The next day, the embarrassed guitarist Joe King tweeted an apology to fans of The Fray: “My fingers froze last night. If anyone wants to join me I'll be at the loser bar tonight." So why is everyone so up in arms about one strangely placed accidental? It seems that somehow The Fray hit a nerve and messed with something that was off-limits. What’s the big deal? It’s just a song…right?

Maybe it’s just that their performance followed the reverent and proud presentation of the flag by the US Marine Corps, and the tone was all wrong. I guess the anthem is supposed to be about national pride, not about cool music. But it’s more than that too. It just didn’t sound like the national anthem: “If you weren’t listening to the lyrics,” one reporter complains, “you'd have never known the band was singing our national anthem." I find this criticism is surprisingly insightful. It seems to me that The Fray’s failure was not musical as much as it was a more fundamental failure to recognize what “The Star-Spangled Banner” is. To try to push the envelope musically and try new things on a song with so much symbolic significance might spring from fuzziness about what roles music plays in public generally.

If all musical performance is performed for its artistic value, then maybe The Fray got it right (though I’m not sure I can get over the ugliness of that strange accidental Joe King added every time the IV chord came around). Try new and interesting things, even if they’re dissonant and strange. Break conventions (even if it’s not on purpose)! Unexpected chords are okay; it’s just part of the creative process. Musical performance is about the artistic expression of the performer or the value of the music itself as an art “object.”

But clearly, art is not what people think music is really for all the time.

A national anthem isn’t just a song; it’s the sound and a story of identity. When you play with that, you mess with something about who and what people think they are, not just with a song they like. It seems to me that this kind of “low art” (and I want to use this term carefully) music is one of the access points that helps us understand how communities work in our culture. Not all music is meant to be a groundbreaking artistic innovation. “Low art” music can tap into something deep about the way we think about ourselves and about the communities we participate in. Both the music itself and the lyrics contribute to our personal sense of identity and a shared identity of our community (or communities). Somehow singing the national anthem or a hymn or a choral piece together with others uniquely allows us to enter a world where people can share in a sense of identity by coming into contact with what you might call a mythology that defines something about that community.

The father of sociology Émile Durkheim, describes mythologies as deeply connected to the life of a community, a series of stories that reflect its sense of identity (Pragmatism and Sociology, 87). These stories might be either historical or fictional, but the important thing is that they express what it means to be a part of the community. So the term mythology is relevant to our communities (and not just religious ones) today; communities of all kinds have origin stories of how they came to be and why they continue to exist. And sometimes communities are formed through individuals finding others with similar kinds of life stories and struggles, preferences and tastes, crystallizing into a coherent mythological identity.

So maybe The Fray stumbled over something mythological, a song central to American national identity, and mistook it for an opportunity for musical creativity.

After the April 2 performance, the Fray’s other guitarist Dave Welsh, reflecting on the NCAA National Championship’s musical mishap, tweeted, “Upon thinking about it, doing the National Anthem is a bit like choosing between Jif and Skippy. You just can't please everyone. -dw." Speaking practically, he’s right. But in this case, maybe it’s not a matter of appeasing aesthetic expectations; maybe it’s a matter of acknowledging the solidarity in song between people who share a common identity.

Matthew E. Johnson is currently a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, serving as the research assistant for the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics.


  1. Hi Matt. It's one thing for a performer to make a piece of communal music "their own" through minor alterations and embellishments that reflect the performer having a personal relationship to the collective identity represented by the music, but quite another thing for a performer to grab the music and run off with it, making it the performer's own, private property. In doing the latter the performer both disavows identification with the group identity and, more importantly, deprives the group of its chance to express its unity, its chance to _commune_. I can see why there was such an uproar but I think it may ultimately owe at least as much to the lost opportunity for communion as to any perceived insult to the group mythology.

    Communion through music is a very primitive thing, and can be completely independent of the symbolic content of the music (the meaning of the words). What is important is that each member of the group feels in sync with the rest of the group, and that requires being able to anticipate what to do next so you can all do it together. Changes in key or tempo are easy to adjust to but taking off on artistic detours leaves people unable to follow together.

    We've probably all experienced losing the words when singing with a group. Often our reaction is to keep singing, mumbling or singing words late rather than making no sound at all. To just stop singing feels wrong in visceral way.

    1. Thanks for the insightful comments!

      I think I agree with you actually. I think you're absolutely right to say that maybe The Fray missed an "opportunity for communion." The question is: how is that communion facilitated through the music?

      I love what you say about how members are able to feel in sync with each other through music, and I think it's really right. It reminds me of an article by Howard Schutz ("Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship") in which he describes the relationship between performers as a "tuning-in" relationship. The music allows the performers to sync up their "inner time" so that they anticipate each other's musical movements and ideas. This allows for a true face-to-face encounter with the other performer. And this works in both small ensembles and big choirs (through a conductor or leader). I think he's right. There is a way in which music connects "co-performers" directly to one another through a "tuning-in" relationship, or as you say, communion.

      However, I think this doesn't completely explain what happens in something like a national anthem or a congregational hymn. It seems to me that the song, lyrics or music (or both), taps into something around which the community has formed or coheres. And maybe you're right; it doesn't necessarily have to be symbolic content that you can extract and describe or represent. But there's something about it that is more than just a way people are able to commune. It has taken on the significance of something that represents the community identity in some way.

      I don't want to downplay your point though. I think it is extremely important to talk about. I wonder if it we could even say that both coincide as factors in the way music connects people to each other.

      What do you think?

    2. As a side note, on one hand I think you're right to say that performers can take music and make it their own and "run off with it." For musicians in these sorts of contexts, it's a fine line between creativity and communion. But on the other hand, I wonder if it's even possible to make music that is not representing some sort of community at all. You can't make music ex nihilo...it always is in response to other music. So as much as artists think they are making music their own, I think we can't get around the fact that "my own" is always constituted by the community with which I keep company.

      So maybe The Fray was "speaking" with the voice of a different community that identifies with that musical style or something like that?

  2. Yeah, that makes sense. Of course the words matter too. I love the example of Will Ferrel's character in The Campaign (and I probably use this example too much). At one point he tries to lead a group in the Lord's Prayer and totally mangles it with ad hoc diversions and replacements for the parts he can't remember. Watching it makes me cringe, and it's not just the lost poetic rhythm but the wrecked meaning too.

    Not only breaking the shared trance quality but also breaking the shared narrative...man, they were probably lucky the villagers didn't come after them with lit torches and pitchforks!

  3. Great reflection, Matt! Right from a musician himself. It seems the question, in alternative words, is also what the role of 'perfection' is in art and what 'perfection' means. I think we can all appreciate musical perfection in performance for its aesthetic value, but it seems that it is required all the more - or is it? - when connected to something as deeply unifying as national identity.

  4. Is music art?--might be an even prior question. It is artistic to be sure, but what is the intent of the musical performance? Surely such an intention has an intrinsic role in establishing the identity of the piece of music one is considering. Is a hymn primarily about its artistic dimension? Or is it about something else, using artistic means in service of that something else? One can ask the same about a national anthem. Personally, I have never understood the N. American penchant for starting sporting events with national anthems. Why not team anthems or the anthem of the network broadcasting the game or the city anthem or whatever. Why the national anthem? But that is a little beside the point. Is a national anthem primarily about its artistic dimension as music or is it about something else using the artistry opened up within music in service of that something else? It strikes me that music did not begin as an art although from the get go there was an artistry that music opened up. Music as art like art for art is a late achievement of the massive differentiations of modern society and culture. But the emergence of music as art does not efface older modes of musical deployment--a national anthem being one such. The Fray understand themselves as musicians as artists and hence their music as art. Those who were angered by their rendition of the American national anthem would, I am sure, be willing to concede that they are artists and that their music has a primary artistic quality. What they disagree with however is the appropriation of the national anthem such that it becomes theirs to fiddle artistically as they will. And these grumblers may well have a point. National anthems are not primarily art; they are something else although there is an artistic dimension to them that is also inexorable. I have to say though I don't get the furor over this rendition; the singer is clearly singing the Star Spangled Banner. The guitar support is idiosyncratic but not desparately so. So what is the deal here? Has a portion of the American populace become so wounded in their national identity that any playing with its symbols can only be received as a threat to those symbols? That would be sad; perhaps even worth a song.