On Tuesday, the United States Space Force entered its anthem era, announcing the release of its own official song at the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md.
The song, “Semper Supra” (“Always Above”), joins the ranks of “The Marine’s Hymn,” “The Army Goes Rolling In” and other staples of the American military anthem repertoire. It’s also … Wait. Why are you laughing?
I knew as soon as I said “Space Force” this would happen.
Because the Space Force is, for the foreseeable future, the New Guy among military branches. Because its sudden and ham-handed public rollout in 2019 was largely entrusted to the writers’ rooms of late-night shows. And, yes, because it’s called the Space Force, so there remains a lingering temptation not to take it seriously (and a tacit cultural authorization to proceed).
Case in point: My father called this morning and asked what I was doing. I told him I was writing about how the Space Force is debuting its official song. His reply: “Who wrote it? Buck Rogers and Hammerstein?” And we laughed and laughed.
Not a bad dad joke by any measure. But point being: the Space Force is not known for its gravity.
This placed the “Semper Supra” creative duo of Jamie Teachenor and Sean Nelson in a tricky predicament. Both men are experienced officers and military musicians: Teachenor, 42, is an Air Force veteran and former vocalist in the Air Force Academy band Wild Blue Country. Nelson, 39, is a Chief Musician who serves as trombonist and staff arranger for the Coast Guard Band.
But neither had ever penned an official anthem for an entire branch of the military before; nor considered how to write a new anthem that could sit on the same shelf as those composed as much as a century earlier.
“The tradition goes back over 100 years,” Nelson said in a conference call on Monday. “Figuring out where this song will fit into that tradition was so important, but I also [wanted it] to have it have its own identity.”
“There’s a lot at stake,” added Teachenor. “It was very nerve-racking.”
Anthems tend to carry within their textures a rich whiff of the past, the patina and efficiency of old war footage, the hiss and crackle of the newsreel. As compact and portable as these little ditties are, they pack some serious historical punch.
Take “The Marine’s Hymn.” One of the oldest songs in American military history, its iconic melody was lifted from Jacques Offenbach’s 1859 opéra bouffe, “Geneviève de Brabant,” and its anonymously penned lyrics (charting a purview “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”) were likely written decades before its official adoption in 1929.
Or “The U.S. Air Force Song” (a.k.a. “The Wild Blue Yonder”), which was written by a rejected WWI Air Service pilot named Robert MacArthur Crawford and won a contest held by “Liberty” magazine publisher (and fin de siecle fitness guru) Bernarr Macfadden. It was officially adopted in 1947.
As most of us have come to understand the Space Force, it has no such history in which to steep; no traditions to uphold; no war stories to tell. Its history is technically the future.
But as Teachenor points out, conversations about the creation of a military branch dedicated to what has been called “the ultimate high ground” have been going on in some form or another since the mid-1940s.
The formation of a “Space Task Group” of NASA engineers in 1957 was ramped up in 1961 after President John F. Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s controversial “Star Wars” initiative sought to create “a shield that could protect us from nuclear missiles just as a roof protects a family from rain.” In the 1990s, Operation Desert Storm saw the advent of GPS and satellite data that would lead to a paradigm shift in Americans’ reliance on space-bound technologies.
Talk of the creation of an official “Space Corps” was actively afoot in Congress by 2017. Following 2019 authorization by the Trump administration of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) – and following a rocky start – the USSF was launched that December.
“That’s a beautiful thing, when people realize that space has a long and vibrant history,” says Teachenor. “That it’s not just sending astronauts into space, it’s the folks on the ground supporting all those satellites in orbit. The mission of the Space Force is one of the most important – we can’t go a day without space.”
And while the Space Force’s $15.5 billion budget is a fraction of the Pentagon’s annual spending, the two musicians are hoping that the simple presence of “Semper Supra” in the rotation of medleys at public ceremonies, sporting events and other forums will help to launch the Space Force – and its “Guardians” – into wider public consciousness.
Okay. So what’s it sound like?
Well, it sounds a lot like a military anthem. A lot. Like, almost too much. In response to my dad’s quip about Buck Rogers and Hammerstein, I told him that “Semper Supra” sounded to me like something you’d hear before the big game at Space Force High. Which, in retrospect, was kind of mean.
Those looking for clarity in terms of who the Space Force is, what they do and why they are, will not find it in “Semper Supra,” which goes light on detail and lyrically has the smoothed-over feeling of a song written by committee.
But those looking for a little hook upon which to hang memories of their own service (in this case, as “Guardians”) will find “Semper Supra” does the job.
I guess for a song that’s destined to orbit around this branch of military in perpetuity, I was hoping for something … I don’t know, spacier?
Over the past century, the cosmos has supplied us with such a rich musical mood board: Gustav Holst gave us his standard-bearing model of the solar system, “The Planets,” back in 1916. Stanley Kubrick’s use of Johann Strauss’s antigravity waltzes and the monolithic motif taken from the other Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” have informed our perception of deep space since “2001” arrived in 1968. John Williams has also memorably distilled his visions of the vastness of space into universal themes – think the “five tones” of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
All of which is to say, despite the vacuum of space, as listeners we are well trained to know what it “sounds” like.
Perhaps this is why the deja vu of “Semper Supra” felt like a letdown. After feeling my stomach plunge when hearing the unholy sound of a black hole for the first time, an earthbound brass band march can’t help but sound like it’s stopping short of the goal. (I didn’t even think marching in space was possible!)
But as much as I’d love our new national call to cosmic duty to strive to capture the boundless wonder of space – that most abstract of jurisdictions – some deeper listening helped me accept that anthems aren’t just music for me to complain about. And they’re not merely jingles designed to inject a quick shot of pomp into staid military circumstances.
Anthems are little battle-tested vessels of memory – strong enough to hold heavy stories of service and portable enough to carry them across generations with the ease of a tune. Will “Semper Supra” ever find its way into the ears and hearts of Americans? That’s a question for the future.