Love it or hate it, America's National Anthem stirs our emotions. Some feel moved by the Francis Scott Key's message of sacrifice and the survival of Fort McHenry under bombardment from British forces in 1814. Others wince, saying it's just too militaristic, or hard for most of us to sing -- the high and low notes too far apart.
Still, the "Star-Spangled Banner" will get its most public display this weekend right before the Super Bowl as Lady Gaga gives her rendition. Will the pop diva keep it uptempo, moving along in its original ¾ time signature, or keep it slow and draw attention to her own vocal acrobatics?
Anthem expert David Hildebrand, director of the Colonial Music Institute in Severna Park, Md., has sung the song thousands of times in public. He foresees a spectacle this weekend.
"I think a lot of people are insulted when the National Anthem becomes a vehicle for a star to draw attention to themselves," Hildebrand said. "Let the words speak for themselves."
Hildebrand said the "Star-Spangled Banner" brings a lump to our throats because it reminds us of the sacrifice of the people who have defended our country. Republican or Democrat, we're all patriots when we listen silently or sing along.
Key originally wrote four verses of the song, which was set to the melody an English gentlemens' drinking song of the time. But today, we only sing the first verse, which ends up posing a question that is answered later.
"The whole message of the song is redemption," Hildebrand said. "The nation's capital had just been burned by the British, we were making our last stand against an attack. The song is a song of redemption of ‘Oh my gosh, we've been attacked by most powerful army in the world and we've survived.' That's the tradition in my mind."
As to its melody, Hildebrand said the key to successfully singing the anthem is choosing the right key to begin.
"The song itself is not that hard to sing if you know how to sing," he said. "It's important to chose a pitch level that is appropriate to your own voice."
The anthem also moves us because it's one of the few times when people do something collectively, in this case singing or listening, according to Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology and American culture at the University of Michigan.
"It unifies us in a collective ritual and reinforces the idea that we are all in this together," Clague said. "The moments like that in our life are pretty rare."
Clague pointed to Whitney Houston's 1991 rendition as a high point in Super Bowl anthems. Even though her vocals were pre-recorded, Houston gave the anthem its rightful musical heft without overdoing it. He admits that performers need to practice and get it right before going on stage.
"The distance between high and low is greater than any other on the planet," Clague said. "It makes it more athletic, demanding and commanding. You have the drama of the melody, particularly to rockets' red glare and gives a sense of triumph and challenge to commit to making the melody sing. I do think the musical drama of the piece is very effective."
As to changing the anthem to a more vocal-friendly tune such as "This Land is Your Land," which Woody Guthrie wrote as a protest song, or the rousing "America, The Beautiful," both Clague and Hildebrand say no.
"People say we should get a new anthem," Clague said. "But there's nothing like (The Star-Spangled Banner) when it all comes together."