The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

All Issues
DEC 21-JAN 22 Issue
Critics Page

Oh, Say Can you Sing?

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about idols as something to sound: We imagine the hollow, golden calf that horrified Moses as full of air, a mere bloviator on behalf of the Canaanite fertility god, Baal. But Nietzsche pushes the reader to go further, to listen to the idol’s “famous hollow sound” as someone with “ears behind his ears,” which invitation theorizes sound about sound. WJT Mitchell theorizes metapictures along similar lines; they consist of “a picture in which the image of another picture appears” and which “may function as a foundational metaphor or analogy for an entire discourse.”1 Mitchell’s recent work on the sonic image takes aspects of his earlier scholarship to their logical conclusion, since sound often shapes images.2 In contrast to the apparent objectifying force of the things we see, the ears behind ears feel their way to the gut, the inflated bowels of the hollow idol.

The first line of the US anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” asks a question that requires the listener to bear witness to the ever-waving flag in terms that connect seeing to saying repeatedly in the song. “Oh say can you see?” the anthem asks. The answer would, when sung in the presence of the actual flag, necessarily be in the affirmative. Yes, I see it, and it waves at me, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In singing these lines, the speech act in song performs an action beyond merely reporting that, “yes, the flag is still there because I can see it as I stand here and sing about it.” The sung words vibrate through the human vocal cords uniquely, across four octaves (which make the anthem particularly hard to sing). The effort required to sing the words amounts to a full-throated affirmation of the flag’s living stature. Not only does it wave in the abstract, but it lives. The US Flag Code confirms as much: “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.”

But the anthem does more than merely sound the object of flag worship. Rather, the origins of this sounding in song preceded and animated the flag. In 1814, the anti-abolitionist lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key, wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” At the time, the national flag was a minor symbol of the nation; the eagle, Lady Liberty, and George Washington were the dominant symbols of a nation of generally regional sensibilities. The War of 1812, however, brought the British military back to US shores and as far as the White House. This Second War of Independence was deeply unpopular. Significantly, like most Northerners, Key was stridently against the war, which was triggered by British incursion on American trade and the impressment of American sailors.

Key was on a British ship liberating a friend on September 14, 1814. Watching the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore from a distance, he wrote a lyric to an existing British drinking song written by John Stafford Smith, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” He scribbled it down and showed it to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, who had it printed up in the printing office of the Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, which had been suspended during and after the battle. The melody was well-known. Anyone could sing it, though maybe not easily, or well. The song forged the image of a flag that waves. That hallowed image of nation that would be secured in 1931, when Herbert Hoover made it the national anthem during the Great Depression, a time when nationalism was on the rise the world over.

At the famous Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, Jimi Hendrix famously played the melody of the “Star Spangled Banner” on his electric guitar. Following a relatively straight performance of the first few lines, Hendrix tore open the melody, adding the explosive thunder of munitions and the piercing shriek of rockets. Semitones warbled, and the whammy bar stretched the strings to near breaking, losing and finding the melody for the well-tuned ears of the youthful, largely American audience. In so doing, he shredded the anthem and its eponymous idol. Nietzsche’s description of “ears behind the ears” well describes the Woodstock crowd. Fatigued and angry at the persistence of the unnecessary and failing Vietnam War, they heard Hendrix’s rapid-fire finger work as a dissonant blast, a sounding of a hollow idol invigorated by anthemic power. Adding “Taps” to the end of the song, Hendrix memorialized the lost soldiers, whose sacrifice Hendrix would have understood, as a one time member of the 101st Airborne. A conclusive “Amen” ends his version,3 which perfectly captures the mourning, strain, anxiety, sense of hypocrisy and potent rage normally bracketed out of the song’s sounding of the flag-as-idol.

Americans habitually reject unusual performances of the anthem. As a nation, we sing our idol to life using the polished tones and lockstep rhythm of collective performance. From Igor Stravinsky (1939) to Rosanne Barr (1990), variations on the melody, whether aesthetic, humorous, or in protest, are met with widespread derision and high stakes, patriotic passion plays. The same occurs when people refuse to stand and sing or when they take the knee. Freedom of speech and song and gesture require the use of “the ears behind ears” as Nietzsche put it. “Oh, say can you see?” is sung. These words challenge us to hear the empty form, the dissonant chord, of a symbol whose profound values are (as yet) only partially realized. That war sound and anti-war sentiment were part of the moment of the flag’s first waving in song should remind us that the anthem and what it stands for are more complex than we might initially suppose. It was, even at the moment of its writing, always almost impossible to sing.


  1. WJT Mitchell, “Four Fundamental Concepts of Image Science,” Image Science (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 18-19.
  2. See WJT Mitchell’s Image Theory: Living Pictures, ed. Krešimir Purgar (Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2019).
  3. Thanks go to the composer, Janice Misurell-Mitchell, for this keen observation.


Hannah B Higgins

Hannah B Higgins is a Professor in the School of Art and Art History at UIC. She is the author of Fluxus Experience (2002) and The Grid Book (2009) and The People’s Flag (2022).


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

All Issues