Reuters

On July 25, 1990, the comedian Roseanne Barr stood in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium before a baseball game, grabbed a microphone behind home plate, and, with her shirttails hanging out and sleeves rolled up, barked out what many consider to be the most unpatriotic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in history.  In a screech not unlike a fork being scratched across slate, Barr garbled her way through the lyrics, missed notes intentionally, and capped off the whole affair by grabbing her crotch and spitting on the ground. In her defense, those final gestures were meant as a parody of ballplayers’ behavior, but many of the 27,285 paying fans didn’t see it that way. What they saw was utter disrespect for the national anthem, and thus, the country. She had exercised her freedom of speech, so they exercised their right to boo her off the field.

Expectedly, the media jumped all over it. The New York Times columnist Russell Baker called the comedian the “ultimate vulgarian.” The opera singer Robert Merrill, who’d been singing the anthem at Yankee Stadium for two decades, said that, upon hearing Barr sing, he’d “almost upchucked [his] dinner.” The conservative columnist and baseball author George Will compared the performance to Japan’s sneak attack of Pearl Harbor. President George H. W. Bush simply called it “disgraceful.”

Twenty-five years later, Barr’s performance is just one of many interpretations of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that have sparked outrage since Congress officially designated it the national anthem in 1931. From the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky’s maligned performance in 1944 to Jimi Hendrix’s now-legendary, psychedelic interpretation at Woodstock in 1969, the national anthem has acted as a lightning rod for the cultural sensitivities of the time. The song has such significance for Americans that a good rendition can bolster the singer’s popularity, while a bad one can tarnish an entire career. So what makes one performance offensive or apparently distasteful, while another seemingly similar one is praised as patriotic? It boils down to several interconnected factors, namely the singer’s background, the temperament and values of the audience, the nature of the event, and the unique political climate at the time.

In Barr’s case, she’d obviously miscalculated most of those elements. At the time, American military forces in the Persian Gulf had been put on high alert. Iraq was about to invade Kuwait, and she was performing in San Diego, a Navy town, at a time when the Roper Center was reporting a healthy 61 percent approval rating for President Bush. Some context: Barr, the star of TV’s most popular show at the time, had built a persona as a loud-mouthed, blue-collar mom. She’d agreed to sing the anthem after the new Padres owner, Tom Werner, who was also the executive producer of Barr’s TV show, tried to boost his two properties by inviting her to participate in a stadium promotion called “Working Women’s Night.”

Mark Clague, an associate professor of musicology at the University of Michigan and a leading authority on the national anthem, said he was initially shocked and dismayed at Barr’s interpretation, but is now sympathetic. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I can sing the anthem,’” he says. “But when you try to sing it, particularly in a public forum, it’s very easy to start mixing up the words, or to start the song a little too high and not have the vocal range to handle it. I think she was over her head in terms of how hard the song is to sing.” But the responses weren’t all bad. “I’ve also heard people talk about it as a working-class anthem,” he adds.

True, Barr’s persona was that of a working woman, and certainly not that of an opera star, but the difference between her being defined as an “everywoman” or as “offensive” may come down to her crotch-grabbing curtsy. As for that bit of theatrics, Clague thinks Barr was acting on the spur of the moment: “I see it as her reaction to the crowd booing her, that she’s upset about her performance, and that her persona on TV was so much the working-class woman fighting the system that what she thought was going to be a moment of connection to the crowd became another attack on her.”

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The “Star-Spangled Banner” had a heroic birth that seemed to assure Americans would long associate it with patriotism. The lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to celebrate the miraculous defeat of the British Navy at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. Marc Ferris, author of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem, says, “Francis Scott Key wrote a poem with no title and set it to the song, ‘To Anacreon in Heaven,’ which was, ironically, an English club song. It was a little bawdy—it’s all about sex, and drugs, and rock and roll, 18th-century style.” So while the original song celebrated carnal pleasures and debauchery, Key’s lofty words elevated it to a higher status. Still, no arrangement has ever been standardized, and so the line between acceptable and unacceptable is a floating one that comes down to the audience—their political views, and sometimes their prejudices.

Consider the Vietnam Era, a polarizing time of antiwar protests, assassinations, and civil-rights marches. Jose Feliciano, a 23-year-old musician fresh off a top-five hit with his redo of the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” performed the anthem before the fifth game of the 1968 World Series in Tiger Stadium, where Detroit was hosting St. Louis. Much in the style of his recent hit, Feliciano gave his anthem a Latin-jazz feel. His alternate melody was a soulful vocal reflection accompanied only by his nylon-stringed guitar. The result was part folk, part blues, and all Feliciano. “The social unrest and the political situation was the backdrop for that Series and that season,” the former Cardinal Tim McCarver told The New York Times in 2006. “It was longer than most versions but it didn’t bother me at all. It bothered some people ... But, back then, even our sideburns bothered people.”

The result? More than a thousand angry viewers complained about his performance to NBC. Veterans watching at home were said to have thrown their shoes at their TV sets, screaming that Feliciano had hijacked their song. Some conservative critics lashed out at him for sitting on a stool, slumping his shoulders, and wearing sunglasses throughout the performance, apparently unaware that he was blind. Others wondered how a Puerto Rican had been given the stage before an American event like the World Series, even though Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and, therefore, Feliciano an American citizen.

(A similar outcry was heard when 11-year-old Sebastien de la Cruz sang at the N.B.A. finals in 2013. The San Antonio-native, performing in his hometown, sang the anthem wearing a Spurs-themed, black-and-silver mariachi outfit. A torrent of racist tweets followed.)

Feliciano said he had intended his piece as a love letter to America for giving him so much. But he might have checked his history books. During World War II,  the composer Stravinsky—who grew up in St. Petersburg—used the anthem as a means to express his gratitude to the country that was about to grant him citizenship. He’d even rearranged the song based on early American religious music. The resulting piece barely deviated from the anthem’s original melody, but America’s fervent patriotism—coupled with a growing fear of Communism—gave the Russian émigré zero latitude. After conducting the piece in Symphony Hall in 1944, Stravinsky found the Boston Police waiting for him, threatening arrest for “tampering with public property.”

In Feliciano’s case, radio stations blacklisted his music, derailing his career. Yet he never saw the backlash coming. “I love the national anthem,” Feliciano told Stan Isaacs of Newsday in 1969. “I changed it because it had to be changed. People are afraid of singing the song and I don’t think they should be. I sang it the way I felt it should be sung and I think it would be great if people are encouraged to sing it their way.”

And some did go on to do so. On August 18, 1969, a year after Feliciano’s performance, the rock virtuoso Jimi Hendrix performed the anthem at Woodstock as a guitar solo, using feedback and other effects to simulate bombs, gunfire, and mental anguish. At one point, he even injected a few bars of “Taps.” In doing so, he introduced a radical, avant-garde version of the song that offered the ‘60s generation its own commentary on the Vietnam War.

Unlike Feliciano, Hendrix escaped negative press from the mainstream media. For starters, he’d served in the U.S. Army in the early ‘60s. More significant, though, was that few people saw his performance live. Hendrix had insisted on closing Woodstock, and as a result, took the stage at 9 o’clock Monday morning to a fraction of the festival’s estimated 500,000 fans—and virtually no media. It was only when the Oscar-winning documentary, Woodstock, came out a year later that Hendrix’s performance gained currency. Perhaps the press had written off his rendition as having limited appeal—much the way it ignored Lady Gaga’s performance at the New York City’s Gay Pride Parade in 2013, after she replaced the closing line “home of the brave” with “home of the gay.”

Ferris points out that Hendrix may have been given a pass by the mainstream press, but not by the conservative American public. “He played [his version of the anthem] a lot, live. He actually got in trouble in Texas. Five thugs showed up outside his dressing room and said, ‘Nobody who plays the national anthem like that will live in Texas.’ He emerged unscathed. But he was ex-Army, and he insisted that his version was not disrespectful to the country.”

Of Hendrix’s Woodstock version, Clague says, “Fans understood that he wasn’t laying a blistering critique of the country on them. Musically, he played the entire song in a proper and respectful way. Where he goes crazy is with his psychedelic improvisation. After the phrase ‘the rockets red glare’ he [adds] this big extension, which is war; and I hear the phrase ‘the bombs bursting in air’ affiliated with race rioting in America. These are illustrations of the text, rather than insults to the text. For me, [his rendition] expresses both love of country and frustration with the country.”

And yet in 1973, the media saw only love of country when the Baltimore jazz singer Ethel Ennis delivered her own groundbreaking interpretation of the anthem. At Richard Nixon’s second inauguration, she sang a cappella, crooning the words in gospel style. Ennis was a Democrat appearing at a Republican’s inauguration during the closing weeks of the Vietnam War. “I was trying to lullaby and cradle America,” she said years later.

Ennis’s career didn’t suffer as a result—in fact, it skyrocketed. She was flooded with interview requests and nightclub engagements, and her next album, 10 Sides of Ethel Ennis, was rushed into stores. What had Ennis done that Feliciano—or for that matter, Barr—had not? For starters, she was flanked at the podium by the president and the vice president. Moreover, she was performing at a presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol, which added gravitas that a baseball field couldn't.

“Different social contexts lead to very different reactions,” says Clague. “An African-American being part of the Nixon inauguration, in a sense affirming the white politician, the leader of the nation, not long after the Civil Rights Act was passed, sort of celebrated the way in which the country was coming to terms with race.”

Whitney Houston was similarly praised when she kicked off Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium in 1991—10 days into the Persian Gulf War. In a scene awash with patriotic zeal, the megastar belted out one of the most rousing versions of the anthem, complete with a full orchestra behind her, thousands of flag-waving fans around her, and a formation of F-16s flying overhead. The recording was released as a single, and when it was rereleased a decade later following 9/11, it became a Top 20 hit. Nobody tried to blacklist her career, even though she had lip-synced the performance and changed the meter of the song from 3/4 to 4/4 time. (Houston’s music director, Rickey Minor, had suggested the rhythmic sleight-of-hand to give his singer more time to linger between phrases.)

“She looks impassioned,” says Clague. “She’s also glamorous. From a musician’s point of view, her rendition is far from traditional. [The tempo change] brings the anthem more in line with what might be typical of hymnody in a church, sort of a low, slow pulse that sounds very religious. It gives it an expanded, floating quality. People love that version because it connects with the sacred associations of the song.”

In Ferris’s view, the success of Houston and others boils down to the musicality of their performances. “It almost depends on how good you are,” Ferris says. “If you’re really good and you can put it over, you can mess around with it.”

So was that America’s issue with Roseanne Barr? Was it simply that she wasn’t born with Whitney Houston’s vocal cords? Would flying F-16s have helped? Barr held a press conference after the debacle in San Diego. When told that the president had called her performance “disgraceful,” she responded, “I’d like to hear him sing it.” Then she added, “I represent a certain part of America that probably no one else represents. And I came out of someplace, and got someplace, and I’ve got a right to sing the song.”

Barr has a point, but what she may be missing is that historical context is always at play. Political tensions narrow the breadth of acceptable interpretations. So when getting ready for her next performance—if Barr dares to do one—she’d be well advised to consider where she’s singing it, who’s listening, and what’s going on in the world around her. While it’s unlikely that someone like Stravinsky would be threatened with arrest for reimagining the song today, “The Star-Spangled Banner” remains a work of enduring resonance and meaning for the American public at large—even if that meaning is always subtly changing.

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