For all its flaws, the best thing about our national anthem – as we currently sing it – is that it ends with a question: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
It’s a tangle of questions, really, about the future: Will our democracy exist tomorrow? Will this land eventually be free to everyone? Are we brave enough to keep working toward that promise? In a modern context, the word “yet” reminds us that American exceptionalism is a lie. There’s still more work to be done.
So when Lady Gaga sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the inauguration ceremony for President Joe Biden on Wednesday morning, she customarily split the “yet” into two syllables, but instead of bending the melody like a question mark, she shot through it like the downward stroke of an exclamation point. Gaga wanted us to pay attention, and she did it by pinching and stretching other words throughout the anthem, as well as donning a spectacular outfit, which included a golden dove brooch that appeared to be life size. Pomp flirted with camp, and familiar words unfolded at irregular rhythms, and our eyes weren’t allowed to glaze over, and neither were our ears.
That’s good, because “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been asking to be heard in new ways. In recent years, when NFL players have refused to stand for it before their games, many came to their defense by citing the ugliness tucked into the song’s unsung verses, some of which threatened enslaved people for siding with the British in the War of 1812. Activists have proposed replacing the bomb-bursts of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with more peace-minded songs, including “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “America the Beautiful” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
Jennifer Lopez performed the latter two songs during Wednesday’s ceremony, punctuating the minimedley by rebuking the anti-immigrant hostility of the Trump years in Spanish: “Una nacíon bajo Dios con libertad y justicia para todos!” (“One nation under God with liberty and justice for all!”) That was another exclamation point. Then, after the swearing-in, country superstar Garth Brooks appeared with a call for unity and a tepid singalong of “Amazing Grace.” That was a question mark.
Earlier in the day, departing President Donald Trump wasn’t using music to send such specific messages. As ever, he was just blasting the songs he likes: “YMCA,” “Gloria.” He had his rally playlist cranked all the way up during his farewell at Joint Base Andrews, where his family appeared in the crowd, basking in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” one last time. Trump has no imagination, no discernible musical taste, but the “normal” music he played at his public appearances over the past four years still had an insidious effect: You might not feel like you’re cheering for a wannabe autocrat when it sounds like you’re waiting in line at CVS.
You’ve probably heard Lady Gaga’s music inside a drugstore, too, but her lyrics often carry messages of acceptance, equality and social justice, and her fans have learned how to deploy them as hate repellent. We saw (and heard) this dynamic play out once again on inauguration eve in the District of Columbia, when deluded protesters gathered on the sidewalk outside Comet Ping Pong, the pizzeria that has been targeted by conspiracy theorists. They carried megaphones and signs about repentance and damnation, but once the restaurant’s staff blasted Gaga’s “Born This Way” on the patio speakers the crowd began to disperse.
Will “Born This Way” stay that way? Will it always have that kind of protective power? Songs change meaning over time, even “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which we’re likely to hear Gaga sing for massive crowds at least a few more times in this life. Every time she gets to the “land of the free,” let’s ask ourselves whether we’re there yet.