Incompetent Elected Official of the Month: Indiana State Senator Vaneta Becker

"All right, Jimi, you're busted. That will be $25!"

Indiana State Senator Vaneta Becker wants to establish a law that would impose a fine of $25 on any performer or citizen who significantly alters the lyrics or melody of The Star-Spangled Banner.  “I don’t think the National Anthem is something we ought to be joking around with,” she has said. “Singing our national anthem is a sign of gratitude to those who have served our country.”

One may notice a theme among those chosen here as incompetent elected officials: the complete unfamiliarity with core American values and ideals, often displayed in a misguided effort to protect those values. This is known as “ignorance,” or perhaps, in extreme cases, “utter stupidity.”  My presumption is that being ignorant or stupid renders an official incompetent to discharge the duties of lawmaking. Am I expecting too much?

Senator Becker, a Republican (there are plenty of incompetent Democrats, but I can’t imagine a Democrat engaging in this particular kind of idiocy)  is apparently in a tizzy over parodies of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which itself is something of a parody, since Francis Scott Key used the well-known tune of a drinking song to devise the meter of his opus. Her National Anthem bill would establish performance standards at state-sponsored events, and require singers to sign a contract promising to be properly respectful before they tackle the tune. Becker also wants schools to maintain audio recordings of every time the anthem is sung, just in case someone complains. Atrocious but good faith renditions are fine, Becker says, reassuring tone-deaf patriots like my late father, who would proudly bellow out his version of the anthem at sports events at mega-decibels. “We just want them to respect the words and the tune as it was originally intended and we normally sing it.”

Does it get any dumber than this? Has Sen. Becker heard of the First Amendment? Artistic freedom? Irony? Please, someone, explain to her the mind-numbing foolishness and offensiveness of her proposal, which includes:

  • Legislating artistic content. The “Star Spangled Banner” is a song, and songs are works of art, as are the performances of songs. Threatening artists who seek to interpret art in ways that government officials disapprove of is a totalitarian technique, the antithesis of what the National Anthem stands for.
  • Restricting free speech. And national anthem is the perfect vehicle for political satire and commentary, respectful or not. Fining a pundit, protester or satirist for using the song to make a political point  is a guaranteed violation of the Constitution—not only would the U.S. Supreme Court strike it down 9-0, their toddler grandchildren would do the same after having the First Amendment read to them. A law degree isn’t necessary to recognize Becker’s measure as un-American. Puberty isn’t necessary either. A brain…why yes, that is essential.
  • Impossible enforcement. Would she want to punish Jimi Hendrix’s iconic guitar riff on the Anthem? How about the cast of the super-patriotic musical “1776” when they sing “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” a song that begins with a Star-Spangled Banner parody? Would the law fine the likes of Christina Aguilera, who respectfully massacred the words at the last Super Bowl, or Rosanne Barr, whose caterwauling, spitting, crotch-grabbing version at a San Diego Padres game used the correct words but was intentionally awful? Would all the Baltimore Orioles fans who shout out “O!”—signifying the Orioles—at the end of every anthem be risking a fine?
  •  $25??? What professional singer is going to be dissuaded from his or her signature interpretation of the song by the threat of $25? Who is Becker’s law aimed at, middle schoolers?

Proposals such as this are political grandstanding, but they should also be seen as cries for help. They say, “Help me! I am over my head! I have been elected to a legislature, and I have neither the knowledge, nor the intelligence, nor the common sense to do my job!”
Won’t the good people of Indiana help poor Vaneta, and find her a job she can do competently?

17 thoughts on “Incompetent Elected Official of the Month: Indiana State Senator Vaneta Becker

  1. You beat me to this one. I’m working on a piece that couples this with Cee Lo Green’s changing of the lyrics to “Imagine” New Year’s Eve. Short version: Green’s awful arrangement and execrable crooning–artistic license. Changing lyrics as parody: no problem. Changing lyrics while pretending to be doing the song as written: unethical. Becker: what you said. Longer version forthcoming… when I finish it.

    By the way, there’s some reason to believe that the bill really is aimed not primarily at professional singers but at, well, not middle-schoolers, but high schoolers.

    • Absolutely unethical. I missed that rendition. Singers who re-compose songs with improvised riffs to the point that the tune is lost are also unethical, though I am reminded of Richard Rodgers’ story about trying to sue the group that sang the Fifties doo-wop version of his ballad, “Blue Moon.” The the record sold more copies than any Rodgers song everr had, and Rodgers made so much money in royalties that he said it was his favorite rendition of any song he ever wrote. Bruce Springstein, who re-composed Gene Autry’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” did Gene a similar favor.

      • Jack he changed one line. its not like he rewrote the whole thing. And yes its horrible performance but he was live , in front of millions and not using auto tune. He just seems to have had a bad night.

      • I saw an interview of Kris Kristofferson in which he stated that Janis Joplin’s rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee” put that song on the map. He said that when he heard her belt it out his response was something like “that’s what I had in mind… that’s it!”

        Is it just me that thinks the best thing about elected legislative bodies is that it keeps the unemployment numbers down… few of those sitting in them could hold a job for long in the real world.

        BTW, would forgetting some of the words be actionable under this law? Who gets the money?

        • Yes, only a non-singer, non-actor, non-artist, non-performer could ever come up with such a lunk-headed concept. The word-botching question was at the root of my Cristina Aguilara reference. My guess is that it would lack mens rea.

    • I just listned the Ce Lo Green and the arrangement is the same as Lennons just slowed down a little bit. Yes he sounded aweful. Its obvious he was singing along to a recorded track, most likely the original that has been slowed down, and he was flat and behind on the notes. Once you get there its hard to ge back on track without stopping. Something you dont have the luxuary of doing live. At least he wasnt using autotune as most live performers do. As to changing the lyrics as long as the family who owns the rights to the song dont have a problem with it , and from all reports they dont, I dont have any problem with it.

  2. It is too bad that both parties bring up these dumb bills. This is worse than bringing ethics investigations when there is clearly no ethics violation just to avoid the real issues. I am severely tone deaf and I would be paying the fine without trying to add my own rendition. I remember sitting in the gallery of Minnesota’s state House during a session when they had a vote on the floor to decide what the state mushroom would be. I don’t think I was even in high school at the time and my aunt had a hard time keeping me from giggling out loud.

  3. I’m from Indiana so let me try to explain this. Hoosiers know their music and if the singing does not 1) sound like Kate Smith’s rendition, or 2) at least resemble how we played it in freshman band class, then get out your wallet and pay up. Enforcement will be tough because no one will use their last name and they will escape before the applause ends.

  4. I never knew “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is a Gene Autry number. Thanks Jack!

    What an embarrassment Becker’s stand is to Republicans and to those who elected her. I hope some organization or other politician won’t follow suit with trying to censor “Weird Al” for his “racist” works using tunes the late Michael Jackson made famous. I’m still trying to learn the moon walk…

  5. Dear Jack: When I first heard of it, my immediate reaction was “$25??”. But it seems obvious that the fine is salutary and the proposed law is only intended as a statement that the National Anthem- which, like the national colors, is an integral part of America’s common heritage- is not to be a cheaply altered medium for some pop star’s career aspirations. It doesn’t matter from where either the words or music ultimately derived (though I hold that “drinking song” allegation with a big grain of salt!) but what the Anthem itself, as constituted, says to us and the world. It’s not there for entertainment, interpretation or improvisation. Just as it’s unlawful to alter the flag to forward an agenda, so should it be for “The Star Spangled Banner”.

  6. I’ve always hated these symbolic laws, the laws that are meant to make a statement rather than solve a problem. Whether it is a student government voting on an ’embargo’ of South Africa during Apartheid, a city enacting a $100 fine for detonating a nuclear weapon within the city limits, or a prohibition of whale hunting in Oklahoma, these laws are just there to make a statement. There isn’t really a problem with rampant illegal whale hunting in Oklahoma and Ann Arbor isn’t really having a rash of nuclear weapon detonations within the city limits (although I have heard it argued that it would be worth every penny of the fine), these laws tell the world that the people there care. Sorry, that is not what laws are for. They trivialize the law and clutter up the legal system. They aren’t seriously meant to be enforced, so why have them? At best, they add to the ‘background noise’ in the law and keep our legislators from concentrating on important matters (like keeping our governments functioning and providing vital services). At worst, they could be enforced. What if someone had passed such a symbolic law in 1940 making it a misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in jail to own or operate a Volkswagen Beetle (Hitler’s car)? Imagine, 70 years later, some prosecutor decides to enforce this perfectly legal law on someone they don’t like (their brother’s ex-wife, a city councilman, the neighbor down the street who painted their house an ugly color…).

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