Butchering the National Anthem

There was quite a bit of chatter in my living room about 15 minutes before the BCS Championship Game kicked off last night. Suddenly, the TV caught my attention: A swarthy John Waters look-alike — with spiked, shoe-polish black hair — was butchering the National Anthem.

I’ve seen a lot of games, and I’ve seen a lot of National Anthems. I’ve never seen a worse rendition in a big game with a huge national audience.

The perpetrator was named Clint Maedgen. He’s a New Orleans jack-of-all-trades type who fronts a wacky cabaret-style act called the Bingo Show!. He’s been a guest singer for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for three years, and he does his own rock material. Even sings some gospel, but not well.

I get that the organizers of the bowl game, played at the Louisiana Superdome, wanted to present the “Star-Spangled Banner” with some local flair. Better than an American Idol retread. And to that end, they had a few fellas from the Preservation Hall band backing Maedgen up. But, despite being from the Crescent City, Maedgen’s singing is not representative of its music or culture. His voice is thin and reedy, with limited range, and lacks innate soulfulness.

The crucial moment in any National Anthem performance is that “the la-and of the freeeee” part, where the singer has to really reach to hit that long, high note. Some do so with easy aplomb, others with rousing passion that prompts a cheer from the crowd, some add silly frills that annoy me. Still others reach that spot and can’t hit the note, so they go into some melismatic spazz-out or overblown wail. That’s what our boy Clint did.

Hey, he scored a good gig, but was in over his head.

I can say from second-hand experience that singing the national anthem in a stadium is some really difficult stuff. Several years ago, a newly signed pop singer, her name long forgotten by me and just about anyone else, was tapped to sing the anthem at a Monday night Bucs game. I stood next to her as she sound-checked and close by as she performed to the packed Tampa Stadium.

Forget that the anthem’s clumsy melody makes it a horribly tough tune to sing — the slap-back echo was brutal. You know when you get that echo on the phone and can barely keep the conversation together? Imagine that times 10 and upping the stakes by a thousand. As I remember, the young woman did pretty well, and without fancy mini-monitors in her ears. She did look a little shook up afterward, though.

So I won’t beat up on poor Cliff anymore.

But before I sign off, let me turn you on to my favorite rendition of the National Anthem. That would be Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. All he did was radically overhaul, and improve, the country’s patriotic signature song by reworking the melody into his inimitable style (without disrespecting the original) and performing it over an undulating mid-tempo funk beat from a lone drum machine.

He caressed the lyrics, infusing them with new meaning, new feeling. The crowd was mesmerized, and little pockets of cheers and squeals rang throughout the performance, followed by a thunderous ovation at the end.

And when he hit that “land of the free” part, he sailed right through it.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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