Being a baseball fan, I have the opportunity each year to hear the national anthem of the United States of America, “The Star Spangled Banner,” performed at least 162 times per year (I’m not even counting football season, since I don’t pay much attention to football. Baseball = Life.) The anthem is performed before each and every game, as something of a public ritual. And as a fan, and a musical fan, I have taken the time over the last five years to conduct something of a very unscientific study of the performance of the anthem and in particular, the delivery of one certain word: perilous.
Now while the dictionary presents us with one proper pronunciation of the word, “pear-ill-us” in actual reality there are at least four presentations possible and these will most definitely all be evidenced during the baseball year. These include, besides the “correct”: “pear-ull-us,” “pear-oh-liss,” and “pear-oh-less,” perhaps the most egregious variation.
I found that generally, renditions of the anthem by marching bands neglect the lyrics completely, but that’s perhaps because (unless accompanied by a school choir) marching bands themselves usually present no opportunity for vocalists to exhibit their acquisition of the English language. So each instrumental version of the anthem gets to take a pass from inspection. Lucky them. I also found that the most egregious violation, “per-oh-less”(not only one, but two syllables mispronounced) was most often used by African American singers, as if in a manner of saying, Ebonics and “getting there in a hurry” had something to do with it. But I also found that groups of early-grade schoolchildren were just as likely to use “pear-oh-less” as black singers. Maybe they are in a hurry! The African American singers are also, almost without exception, most likely to take artistic liberties with the melody. Maybe these people could care-o-less how well they come off.
The post-9-11 super-patriotic types, the first responders, whose one chance per year to truly shine involves their own deep-lunged contribution of the anthem, are most likely to use the “pear-ull-us” construction. Each syllable must be reached for from deep down within themselves, and the “ull” shows us all- “that man has a diaphragm, and he ought to have been in opera!”
Those who sing it “pear-oh-liss” at least having the last syllable correct are seemingly the white-bread WASPy women, who got to the stadium most likely by way of having won a beauty pageant, or something like that, or who function as “recording artists” and win by way of their introduction as such by the PA announcer. But again, their construction of the second syllable as “oh” betrays their ignorance of proper enunciation. Someone get those tired horses out of the sun, please.
The “pear-ull-us” singers who come close, but earn no cigar, it seems are they who would also most have us remember that it is us, the U.S., who survived the perilous night at Fort McHenry with Francis Scott Key and that most amazingly, “our flag was still there” when we woke up in the morning. Miracles, perhaps, never cease, but the British do run out of cannonballs, apparently. And of course, why forget to mention those who feel the interminable need to reach the highest high-C they can muster with an octave-jump on the word "free"? They reminds me of nothing less than as the joyous squealing of pigs on their way to market. And it's usually the most insecure of singers who feel the need to inflict it.
I can barely bring myself to mention it, but I shall, because it’s now a growing problem, and MLB seems determined to add it to the ritual at each “seventh-inning stretch,” but “God Bless America” is not the national anthem of the United States, and patrons of Major League Baseball ought to feel no necessary compunction, as such, to rise for its rendition. “God Bless America”, God damn it, is just another song. And all the rhinestones in Kate Smith's bra can't ever make it otherwise.