Canada ruins everything. At least, it does when it comes to event planning your standard regular-season NBA game. As you probably know, any game that features an American team playing a Canadian team must include the singing of both "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "O Canada." If you look up into the rafters of any American arena, you'll see a Canadian flag hanging there specifically to accommodate this ritual. And because the Canadian anthem adds a whopping 70 seconds to the pregame festivities, it's NBA policy for the anthems to be sung earlier than is usual: 12 minutes prior to gametime, to be exact.
It's amazing that every sports league still follows these customs to the letter, but that's just how much national anthems matter to people. Like a flag, an anthem holds an unnatural power over a country's population. If you disrespect it—either deliberately or even by innocuously forgetting the words—people get PISSED. Super duper pissed. If you changed the lyrics to "O Canada" and then screamed "EAT SHIT YOU MAPLEHUMPERS" at the end, we would need an international summit to ease tensions. It's just a song, but so many people have poured so much into it that it becomes a cultural talisman that cannot be trespassed upon. The song is the nation. The nation is the song. That's why there are relatively few examples of anthem singers showing open contempt. Here is the most infamous example:
It takes a remarkable amount of gall to do something like this, because the consequences are so severe and so terribly obvious. This is true even if you dislike your own country, or if you're singing the anthem of a nation that isn't your own. You can't fuck it up, because fucking it up is a declaration of war.
So it was with that in mind that I went to Atlanta earlier this week to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "O Canada" prior to the Raptors-Hawks game. The Hawks extended this offer to me after I wrote about singing just the "Banner" at this minor-league game. I did not know the lyrics to "O Canada," mostly because I am not Canadian and don't care all that much about Canada. As an American, that song has always represented a pregame obligation that I never bothered paying actual attention to. This is why my knowledge of the song amounted to the first two words ("O Canada ... um ... Canada is greaaaattttttt") and that one episode of Cheers where Carla sings it after Eddie LeBec dies (apologies for the spoiler). So I had to get the lyrics and melody down, and then try not to forget everything with a few thousand Atlantans doing their best to ignore me. Here's how it went:
- Technically speaking, "O Canada" is the easier song to sing. It's shorter by 17 words (if you count only the "Banner"'s first verse; there are four more stanzas if you have the stomach for them). And it doesn't include the high notes on "rockets" and "free" that have tripped up many, many anthem singers over the years. It's a subtler, more modest song, which is befitting of Canada and its cute little man-beaver population.
- Deadspin's favorite Canadian, Gourmet Spud, told me that if I really wanted to jack up the difficulty, I would sing the middle part of the song in French, as is customary in Quebec. I could not do this. French is fucking impossible. I don't know how you create a language where half the letters are silent. Also, if you go for the Franglish version, you risk looking like someone who is deliberately trying to impress people, and I did not wish to do this. I am already enough of an insufferable dick.
- I practiced "O Canada" at home. And even when singing alone, I was extremely self-conscious. It's one thing to sing in a car or a shower. But when you're really belting out a song alone in a random room, there is the constant fear that someone will walk in and you will be caught and have to explain yourself. It's like being caught masturbating: a private joy you'd like to keep private. You don't want to have to explain yourself. Why were you singing "O Canada"? Are you a spy? Is invasion by horseback imminent?
- I rehearsed in front of my children and got three words into the song before my son screamed, "YOU'RE A BAD SINGER, DAD." I kept going, reasoning that a seasoned performer should be able to withstand heckling. But the fucking kid just repeated over and over until I gave up. Kids are dicks.
- You need to listen to a new song a certain number of times before you really get it down cold in your mind. Unless it's a really catchy pop song, this can take some effort. You'll get a new album from your favorite band and hit a track you like and try to replay it in your mind, but it will elude like last night's dream you unless you spin it five to 10 more times. And then there is a moment where you go through the entire song in your head and you don't miss a beat and that's a really nice moment in the human listening experience. Where you're like, "Fuck yes, now I can sing this in the car." I had that moment after roughly 15 attempts at "O Canada," and it was highly gratifying. It's always fun to add another tune to the mental library.
- I got to Atlanta—a city where no one is ever in a hurry—at around 2 p.m. and wouldn't be singing the anthem for another five and a half hours. So that gave me plenty of time to stand around and think about everything that could go wrong—fumbled lyrics, cracked voices, being shot, etc. I walked around downtown to keep myself busy and subsequently saw a man being arrested. Nothing beats gawking at an arrest made in real time. WHOA THEY'RE CUFFING A GUY! The arrestee kept refusing to tell the cops his legal name. That's a sound strategy. They can't put you in jail if they don't know your name! I THINK.
- I also had no clue what to wear for this thing. This was the South, where formal dress is something to be celebrated. I had a tux, so I could stand in the middle of the court and look like a ring announcer. But I wimped out and rocked the sweater-over-dress-shirt combo that's sweeping the white-dipshit nation.
- Before the anthem, I grabbed a drink and had to hold myself back from getting completely shitfaced due to nerves. There is a fine line between having a glass of wine to ease your nerves and staggering out onto the court looking like a Kennedy, and I am poor arbiter of where that line is. We went to a chain restaurant and the waitress there was the kind of nice lady who gives overly elaborate descriptions of special and cocktail recommendations ("Now if you like mojitos we make a fabulous mojito and you can see a picture of that on page three of your menu"). I've waited tables a handful of times in my life (poorly) and waiting tables is its own kind of performance. The people sitting down expect something from you, and that's nerve-wracking in any situation. No one wants to look stupid or incompetent, and so sometimes you compensate by taking five minutes to explain why the lamb is good.
- There was a soundcheck at 5 p.m. Team officials took me to the center of the court while the Hawks cheerleaders (not unattractive!) were warming up in T-shirts and shorts. I was given the mic and told to sing. And when I started rehearsing, I could feel the cheerleaders pause for a moment to figure out why they had to listen to this shit. I felt really bad. It was awkward for everyone. I had no mic stand. Just a plain mic, which never fails to look like a giant penis in your hand. A mic stand helps. A mic stand is your life raft.
- Team officials eventually escorted me to the green room, which was not green and did not feature a buffet spread or celebrities hobnobbing. It was just a cell. There was a box of T-shirts for the T-shirt cannon in the corner. I stole one, and then the cannon guy came in and I confessed and apologized. He let me keep the shirt.
- In the concourse, we ran into Dominique Wilkins, who does local TV broadcasts for the games. And lemme tell you, for all the goofing we do on athletes here, I still turn into a 5-year-old when I see someone like that. I walked away from the exchange with my friend and we were both like HOLY SHIT THAT WAS DOMINIQUE WILKINS. 'Nique still looks like he could dunk 50 straight times, by the way.
- I kept rehearsing and my friend told me to stop. "You know the songs. You're not gonna know them better by singing them constantly." This was true. Also, imagine sitting with a friend in an empty room and having to hear him sing a cappella for minutes at a time. You would kill that friend.
- I was taken back out to the court through the tunnel. There was barely anyone in the arena. I know Atlanta is considered a shitty sports town by lots of people, but I can't blame them. The Hawks aren't very good. Traffic in the city is agony. And attending a game in person is not only expensive, but a time suck that most people simply can't bother with anymore. We're ALL bad fans now. There are just too many other, cheaper entertainment options there for the taking now. Sometimes sports asks too much of you.
- Also, arenas and stadiums look barren now because people go to the stadium and then spend the whole game fucking around in a club and not bothering to take their actual seats. So congrats to American sports teams for finding a way to erode their own fan credibility.
- As for Philips Arena, all the luxury boxes are on one side of the joint, so that there's a wall of luxury boxes facing the court. It basically looks like the "Thunderstruck" video. I liked it.
- They took me out to the center of the court. I was told to sing into the camera, which was high above me. Far as I was concerned, the higher, the better. You know how you see people sing and they look skyward, like they're singing to God? That's because they don't wanna look anyone in the face and shit their pants. Up is the only way to go. Also, the lyrics to "O Canada" were running on the screen over to the side, so I could cheat if I needed to. I grabbed onto the mic for dear life and stared at the lights above until I was ready to go blind, dying to get the end of the songs and make it out alive. I made it through both anthems without having to resort to cheating. I did my best to sing "O Canada" with feeling, to summon whatever affection I had for Canada and belt that shit out with some semblance of pride. Here's a video of both anthems. Watching this makes me want to die.
- I thought I did both anthems without fucking up but one Canadian reporter disagreed:
- I still don't know how I fucked it up twice, so if you're a Canadian please tell me how poorly I did. I swear I didn't fuck it up on purpose. I asked Spud for a formal evaluation: "But for that brief moment of self-indulgence at the 0:25 mark, where you held the last 'Canada' like you were Jeff Buckley at the end of 'Hallelujah', you did right by the anthem. 7 Biebers out of 10. If Doug Smith really did hear the whole anthem that was the longest he's been awake at a Raptors game in 10 years."
- Anyway, apart from self-glorification, I did this as an exercise in trying to figure out which anthem was superior, and I'm sorry to let you down, Canada, but I'm obviously picking the REAL national anthem. I'm not some contrarian asshole. Ours is better. It's more fun. It's an emotional roller coaster, I tell you. And it's my country's song. It's woven into my fabric just as "O Canada" is woven into yours. Grow up in one spot and your nationality becomes something that is inherently yours, whether you like it or not. It's your bloodline. It's your family. And that's why I'll probably forget all the Canada lyrics I learned six days from now. You can't fake pride.