December 11, 2018, 4:19

Fergie’s Wild Reinvention of the National Anthem at the N.B.A. All-Star Game |

Fergie’s Wild Reinvention of the National Anthem at the N.B.A. All-Star Game |

If you, like me, heard vague rumblings of the pop singer Fergie bungling her rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Monday night’s N.B.A. All-Star Game,
but found the conversation too inherently unexciting to investigate any
further, let me offer another position, which is that Fergie didn’t so
much botch the national anthem as completely reinvent it in the most
insane and enthralling way possible.

Fergie sauntered toward the microphone wearing an elegant black-lace
cocktail dress. Her nails were long and decorated; her lips were
glossed. While being asked to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” is
certainly a singular honor, it’s a famously tough song to
wrangle—besides the considerable range required to hit both its lowest
and highest notes (and usually without musical accompaniment), you have
to both recall and convincingly vocalize the phrase “O’er the ramparts.”

From the outset, something was off. Someone, somewhere, started plucking
an upright bass. Someone else brushed a snare drum. It was
“jazz-inspired,” her team later told Us Weekly.
I could give you the whole play-by-play, but, frankly, it’s worth your
two and a half minutes. There’s scatting, for one. There’s more
breathless, aggressively seductive riffing than I
thought possible from a woman not wearing bunny ears and heels. Fergie’s
voice—brittle, overwrought—has never been her finest asset, and the
national anthem is for big-time singers. The N.B.A. players, most of
whom were anxiously shifting from one foot to the other, seemed
flummoxed, if not sour. Eventually, their disinterest gave way to
bemusement. After one particularly egregious digression, the camera cut
to the Golden State Warrior Draymond Green, who had previously been
watching with his mouth agape. He started laughing.

After a closing run on the word “free,” which she punctuated by
dramatically snapping her hands down, Fergie flashed a deeply satisfied
smile to the crowd, as if to say, I’m killing it, you guys. It’s my
favorite part of her performance, and I mean that not in a snarky, “Look
at this clown!” kind of way but in genuine admiration. There is
something so lovely about self-belief that runs that deep—self-belief
that exists (if not thrives) in total opposition to other, more obvious
forces. What a beautiful thing—to continue to trust in your own
goodness, even as professional athletes dissolve into snickers all
around you, even as you add endless, nonsensical jazz syllables to the
word “banner.” Such confidence! Such presence of mind! “Neither Fergie
nor her team thought anything was wrong with her national anthem
rendition,” Us Weekly reported. “That’s the way she sings a lot of her
songs. She loves adding a little sexiness and being different with her

Besides having the technical wherewithal to conquer the song’s perilous
twists, the second most important rule of anthem singing is terrifically
simple: don’t monkey with it. Many artists have performed the anthem
poorly, if truly—Scott Stapp, of Creed, in 2005, at Nascar’s Ford 500;
the Olympic champion Carl Lewis, in 1993, at the
N.B.A. Finals; Roseanne Barr, in 1990, at a baseball game. But ripping out the seams and reimagining the song in your own image is too hubristic even for swashbuckling Americans to stomach.
In 2005, R. Kelly introduced an exceptionally strange R. & B. version—“Clap your hands,
y’all! Woo!” he shouts in the middle—at a middleweight boxing match
between Jermain Taylor and Bernard Hopkins, and was handily booed. A
century earlier, the federal government had sagely anticipated the need
for consistency—for an anthem we can all easily holler along to at home.
In 1917, Woodrow Wilson requested that the U.S. Bureau of Education
determine an official, standardized arrangement of the song. That
version, which was settled on by five composers (Walter Damrosch, Will
Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonneck, and John Philip Sousa),
premièred at Carnegie Hall, on December 5th of that year, though it wouldn't be adopted as the official national anthem until 1931. (The only
successful exception I can think of to this is Jimi Hendrix, who was so plainly exceptional in all things.)

I remain unsure why pop singers—or any singer whose trade is not
entirely predicated upon technical virtuosity—keep agreeing to stand up
there and nervously bellow their way through it. There are plenty of
other opportunities to get on television. Why don’t we all just concur
to cede the honor to the classically trained, or to children? Children
routinely sound great singing the national anthem, and they never forget the words.


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