Like every other national symbol, however, it's open to interpretation. What do those lyrics mean to members of the Civil Rights movement who saw friends and leaders die to help secure their personal freedoms, only to see the affirmative action and voting rights programs they fought for stripped away? What did those words mean to Texas State Senator Wendy Davis on Hour 10 of her filibuster? Or to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense Of Marriage Act? What do they mean to the people on the other side of each of those arguments, who honestly believe their own liberties in that anthem's "land of the free" are under assault?
The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street share the same anthem and have splintered interpretations of it. There's the anthem that's written in the sheet music, and there's the one we all choose to read and hear.
For the reasons already stated, "The Star Spangled Banner" isn't going anywhere. For those same reasons, the real anthem for these United States is more likely a playlist -- myriad tunes and narratives melded into one greater vision.
This country's songwriters have done little to rebuke that argument. The outsized patriotism of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" was almost immediately countered by Woody Guthrie's more modest and personal "This Land Is Your Land." Lee Greenwood's soaring pride in 1984's "God Bless The U.S.A." was counterbalanced by Bruce Springsteen's soul-crushing -- and, thanks to Ronald Reagan, misinterpreted -- realism in "Born In The U.S.A." later that year. Toby Keith's "Courtesy Of The Red, White and Blue (Angry American)" gets The Dixie Chicks' "Travelin' Soldier" on the other side of the aisle.
With so many pieces to the American puzzle, how does any one statement stand on its own? When Neil Diamond writes "America" from the perspective of a man who came from a family of immigrants and sees an incredible upside to the immigrant experience, can he ever reach a listener who wants the borders closed and newcomers reduced to a slow trickle? Do the malaise and working-class disappointment of Springsteen's "My Hometown" and Paul Simon's surprisingly prescient, 40-year-old "American Tune" seem dissonant to fans of Montgomery Gentry's far more optimistic "My Town?"