An Anthem All Your Own

Scott Gardner

The “Happy Birthday” song and “The Star-Spangled Banner”: two extremely popular tunes with similar problems. They are similar in that both appear celebratory on the surface while harboring dark undertones. One is a seemingly joyful ode to humans’ inevitable spiral towards death; the other commemorates surviving a military attack, then compiles a list of who should be killed in retribution.

Until recently, a major U.S. music publisher claimed ownership of “Happy Birthday” and for decades charged royalties as high as $700 for public performances. That came to about $44 for each “happy” in the lyrics. Low-income Americans had to make tough decisions each year on whether to get Grandma a birthday cake or sing her a song, because they couldn’t afford both. Some surreptitious celebrants skirted the law by singing quietly with the lights out (hence the candles), or singing at funerals and public executions instead of birthdays. They’d claim the performance was parody and subject to free speech protection. Since the copyright applied to the U.S. only, my aunt used to call her Canadian relatives and have them sing it over the phone. The copyright claim was rejected in 2015 and the song is now public domain, but people still feel skittish about singing “Happy Birthday” out loud. On birthdays at my house we’ve opted to sing “No Fun” by The Stooges.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” is the U.S. national anthem, but it’s also part of a battle over the American definition of the word “patriot”. (For a neutral definition of “patriot” look in the dictionary under “nationalist”.) Some Americans contend that showing respect for their country—“patriotism”—includes not only singing the song at public events like football games, but also standing and performing specific ritualistic actions while singing it. These symbolic actions aren’t difficult to do, but they require patriotic sports fans to find flat, stable surfaces to put aside their beer and hot dogs until the song is finished. What’s worse, people who, for whatever reason, don’t perform the ritual satisfactorily may be labelled as unpatriotic. Sadly, the issue of performing the song correctly has become such a political football (an apt metaphor) that some public event organizers have tried abandoning its performance altogether. Of course this makes the patriots’ “red glares” even redder.

I have a solution to the problems with both songs: Make them the same song! When you sing it at home to Grandma, you needn’t worry about copyright because no red-blooded American would stop you from singing. Meanwhile, at your next football game you can sing while keeping in mind the birth of whatever special person or entity you like: your toddler, your country, your maturing retirement fund, or the goofy guy a few rows down from you with the “Turning 50, Feeling Nifty” t-shirt.

The key is to change the lyrics. The insipid original words to “Happy Birthday” need to be given some substance, and the violent military emblem worship in “The Star-Spangled Banner” needs to be given up and turned over to the heavy metal bands.


“The New Happy Birthday Song”

(to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner”)


Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday to you

Everyone gets their turn

So it’s time you got yours too


One more year has amassed

And you still haven’t passed

So we sing one more time

And we hope it’s not the last


By tonight we’ll be gone

To someone else’s lawn

But for now it’s to you

That we’re singing this song


We don’t ask for much

Just a smile when we’re through

For the people who sang

“Happy Birthday to You”