Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Zooey Deschanel's National Anthem, Or How (Not) to Talk About a Performance

Two responses to Grantland's broadside against Zooey Deschanel's national anthem bring up a problem that confounds everyone concerned with analyzing music: the difference between a transitory live performance, where an audience measures success in that moment, using a set of expectations conditioned by context; and t a recording of the same event, a mediated experience that listeners experience individually, over and over again.

Jason Heid, on Dallas's D Magazine tells us what it was like to experience Deschanel's rendition at the game:
I was at Rangers Ballpark for Game 4 last night, and loved the sense of melancholy with which Deschanel infused the familiar song. It felt almost like a funeral dirge, and I mean that as a high compliment. It was quite different from what we normally get at these games: when some mid-level country music or top 40 star is trotted out for a serviceable, but instantly forgettable, performance. 
A reader of Andrew Sullivan's The Dish makes the point that the Deschanel version, as opposed to the much praised Whitney Houston's at the 1991 Super Bowl, was perfect to sing along with:
Zooey sang it like she meant it. Even the way she softened the ends of most of the lines gave the audience room to hear themselves singing along, and isn't that supposed to be the point?
Her job was not to deliver an aria to a silent hall; it was to lead the crowd in singing the song. 
However dramatic or pleasing Whitney Houston's rendition might have been, you can't sing along to it. you can only listen ... Singing the national anthem is supposed to be a participatory ritual, not a spectator sport. 
Is it fair, as Grantland did, to evaluate a live performance based on a video recording of it? Are Caspian-Kang and Vargas-Cooper (these are their names, really), and Jason Heid responding to the same thing at all? And do we really want to sing along?