CMU Opinion

Hey Fergie, don’t apologise for bulldozing the Star-Spangled Banner

By | Published on Friday 23 February 2018


I don’t really know much about sport, other than that it’s a thing some people take part in, mainly in an attempt to overcome inadequacies in their respective personalities. But I do know that standing for the national anthem is a thing that happens at sporting events the world over. And that in the USA they have, of course, taken this to extreme levels.

I don’t know who the first celebrity to sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at a sporting event in the States was, but they have a lot to answer for. There began a process of one-upmanship that has grown into a sprawling nightmare.

As such, when Fergie, formerly of the Black Eyed Peas (not the Duchess, although she does confusingly refer to herself as The Duchess), was asked to perform the national anthem before the NBA All-Star Game last Sunday, she couldn’t just sing it, she had to come up with some sort of concept.

The concept seems to have been ‘jazz club’, which is fine. But Fergie is not a jazz singer. And jazz singing is an actual skill that people work quite hard to develop.

Let us analyse exactly what happened. She is first introduced by someone who has a lisp and sounds like they’re holding their nose, which doesn’t exactly set the tone for a Serious Musical Performance.

A brush hits the snare drum. Fergie confidently steps forward, even though she’s had plenty of time to stand in the correct position behind the microphone already. She manages to hit five different and unrelated notes within the first two words, like she’s not quite sure which one she’s supposed to start with.

There’s then a second or two when she appears to have settled on a melody. It’s at this point she starts messing around with the rhythm, delivering the next few words like a particularly self-assured cat. She continues to the end of the next line, where she finds herself without enough words left to bring the bar to a satisfactory close. We are 29 seconds in.

She continues in this mode. The camera pans around to basketball players attempting to sway in time with a performance that seems to be losing its grip on time, and perhaps space. Some notes are held for too long. Others are far too short. At one point she delivers an “oh” like something just bit her leg. Eventually each audience member realises that everyone else wants to laugh at it all too, and so they all let out a little chuckle.

Then she changes tack. She’s coming toward the end. She starts to go for a big finish. The crowd compose themselves. They applaud. It’s the national anthem, after all. Then it all goes weird for a moment, before the final blast of “brrrraaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAVE” to win everyone back over.

“Let’s play some basketball”, she shouts, quickly taking everyone’s minds off what just happened and putting the focus back on what they’re actually there for.

Except people did keep thinking about it. And then they started to question what had happened. “Was it good?” people momentarily pondered. The consensus was quickly reached: No.

So overwhelming was the view that it hadn’t been good, that Fergie ended up apologising the next day. She told TMZ: “I’ve always been honoured and proud to perform the national anthem and last night I wanted to try something special for the NBA. I’m a risk taker artistically, but clearly this rendition didn’t strike the intended tone. I love this country and honestly tried my best”.

I’ve never really seen Fergie as a risk taker, but I guess you can’t argue with fact that performance was quite risky. Of course, a true risk taker would know that you should never apologise for your art. If people don’t get it, that’s their problem. Although, I suppose, the US national anthem isn’t her art, it belongs to every American citizen.

Still, it seems that America has a desire and an expectation that celebrities will perform that national anthem for them, rather than just having it piped in and gotten over with as soon as possible like in any other country. And that makes it harder for said celebs to make their performances stand out.

To be fair to Fergie, she’s not the first person to try something different and have it fall flat. She’s not even the worst. At least she remembered the words. It’s amazing how many people go out there and fail to remember what is not the lengthiest of musical works.

Avoiding that problem a couple of years ago was Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who did a noodley solo bass version before an LA Lakers game. It was met with the sort of reception any bass solo should receive. Did he apologise though? No, when he was quizzed about it by TMZ, and asked what he thought about all the people who said it was shit, he replied: “I don’t care, man”.

“I really don’t have any concern for little small minds that get frustrated when they get blown”, he added. “I like the big minds”.

See? That’s how you respond to people questioning your art. You tell them to fuck off. Although, other than not saying sorry, Flea’s response there was actually quite similar to Fergie’s. Oh, you can’t handle all the risks I’m taking? Sorry if I overloaded your brain. That’ll teach you to let your mind be blown in the first place.

By going out there and trying something different (aka rubbish), Fergie – and Flea – both possibly get themselves on the list of memorable celebrity national anthem performances.

And, I mean, how many people are remembered for good performances of the US national anthem? There’s Marvin Gaye and Whitney Houston, as far as I can tell.

But if you fuck up – that’s a much better way to make sure people remember your version. Shall we do a list of other memorable national anthem moments to prove that is so? Yes, I know, it’s what you’ve been hoping for this whole time.

Roseanne Barr at a 1990 San Diego Padres game
Roseanne Barr is not known for her singing ability. Mainly because what people generally know of her singing ability is this performance. She seemed to be enjoying herself though.

Carl Lewis at a 1993 New Jersey Nets game
Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis is also not known for his singing ability. Although it does turn out he released an album in 1987, so perhaps he should have faired better than Barr. He did not. He also broke the no apologising rule. In the middle of the song.

Steven Tyler at the 2001 Indianapolis 500
Like many artists, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler has been booked to sing the national anthem multiple times. Which is impressive, because he’s rarely been thanked for it afterwards. This 2001 performance is particularly notable because it starts with a harmonica solo, incorporates scat singing, and sees him change the final line.

Metallica at every fucking opportunity
This isn’t bad, I just don’t understand why it’s happening. If anything shows that this whole celeb national anthem thing has got out of hand, it’s this. Before I lost the will to live, I found four instances of James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett rocking their way through the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. Why is this so in demand?

Michael Bolton at the 2003 American League Championship Series
Other than it being Michael Bolton, there’s nothing massively wrong with this. However, he does forget the words at one point. Luckily, he has them written on his hand. Pro tip. There’s a beautiful moment where he thinks he got away with it, but then realises the entire crowd has clocked what he just did.

Christina Aguilera at the 2011 Super Bowl
This is the big one. The Super Bowl. The biggest TV audience you’re ever likely to get. Definitely the one where you don’t want to mess up. Luckily, Christina Aguilera has been performing the national anthem at sporting events since she was a small child. But then, disaster struck. She repeated a line she’d already sung. People lost their shit.

“I got so lost in the moment of the song that I lost my place”, she said later. “I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and that the true spirit of its anthem still came through”. Which is a much better response than, “Sorry, I’m just a risk taker”.

Fergie, who was performing the Superbowl half time show with the Black Eyed Peas that year, later came to Aguilera’s defence. Ever the star-spangled apologist.

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