Commentary

'Star-Spangled Banner' isn't easy to sing

Originally Published: February 7, 2011
By Patrick Hruby | Page 2

Christina Aguilera Christopher Polk/Getty ImagesChristina Aguilera memorably botched "The Star-Spangled Banner." Think you could do better?

Not to make excuses for Christina Aguilera's epochal botch of the national anthem before Sunday night's Super Bowl -- seriously, twilight's last reaming? -- but everyone still snickering despite her subsequent apology ought to keep one thought in mind.

Singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before a packed house -- and millions more watching on television -- is difficult.

Like, way tougher than it looks.

Even for accomplished pros.

Don't take our word for it. Talk to people who have pitted their voices against a tune that has punked everyone from Macy Gray to Robert Goulet. Or just heed the words of velvet-voiced Nat King Cole, who once advised: If you do nothing else in your life, don't ever sing the national anthem at a ballgame.

Indeed, no tune this side of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" has spawned a greater number of regrettable covers. A few years ago, we asked a group of performers and the people who hire them for sporting events why the anthem can turn into a star-mangled bummer. They identified four major sticking points:

Familiarity: Singing at an Atlanta Falcons game, country crooner Johnny PayCheck once took the anthem and, well, shoved it, singing, "Oh say, can you see, it's cloudy at night, what so loudly we sang, at the daylight's last cleaning." Before a Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston title fight, Goulet made the now-immortal slip-up "by the dawn's early night." At an MLB All-Star Game, pop singer Anastacia doubled-down on Goulet's bust, singing "gave truth through the night" and "rocket's great glare."

Afterward, Anastacia claimed she "totally knew" the words to the song. Did she totally not know the meaning of the word "totally"? Maybe not. Let singer Georga Brown, who has performed the anthem at MLB games, explain.

"Because we take it for granted and sing it by rote, the anthem is harder to remember than a song you've actually sat down and learned," Brown said. "If you're put on the spot, nervous, distracted by your surroundings, the first thing that's going to go is your words."

Fear: Speaking of nerves, it's one thing to flub a French art song at a recital -- and quite another to screw up the anthem with tens of thousands of patriotically inclined fans looking on. The former is professionally embarrassing; the latter likely will land you on "SportsCenter," and/or be preserved on YouTube for the smirking amusement of future generations.

Case in point? Track and field legend Carl Lewis. At a 1993 Chicago Bulls-New Jersey Nets game, Lewis warbled his way to "rockets red glare" before his voice cracked in the manner of a pubescent burger-flipper over a drive-thru intercom. With a bewildered sellout crowd looking on and players on both teams struggling to keep straight faces, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist yelped "uh oh" -- and then, inexplicably, continued to sing, promising fans "I'll make up for it, now," before launching into a final stanza that saw him stumble over "spangled," "banner," "the" and "o'er" (twice).

To this day, the clip is replayed whenever someone drives the anthem into a vocal ditch.

"It's a daunting experience," said Michael Goldberg, who once sang the anthem at a Florida Panthers NHL game. "There are 15,000 people staring only at you. You're fearful of forgetting the words, or of taking those bad liberties with the song."

The Music: No less a musical authority than Frank Sinatra once said the anthem was "a terrible piece of music. If you took a poll among singers, it would lose a hundred to nothing." The reason? The anthem isn't a song at all, but rather a poem, written by Francis Scott Key during the British bombing of Baltimore's Fort McHenry in 1814, and rife with tricky phrasing and stumble-worthy words. For instance, "perilous."

"Try saying that three times, let alone singing it," said Sharelle Smith, who once sang the anthem at an NBA game. "'Through the perilous fight' is supposed to be one phrase. But it's very hard to do."

Musically, the anthem is based on an old English drinking song, spanning an extra-wide vocal range of an octave and a half. As such, many singers can't hit both the high and the low notes. And even those who can sometimes struggle to find the right key.

"It's difficult to place it in your voice and start off on the correct note," said singer Marilyn Paige, who has performed the anthem at sports events and for President Clinton at a 1998 event. "You want to start on a note that won't make the low notes too low to hit, or your high notes so shrill you give the people in the nosebleed section a hemorrhage."

The Moment: Pomp and circumstance. Fireworks and flyovers. An ear-scrambling echo effect, courtesy of typical in-stadium acoustics. Singing the anthem at a sporting event takes more than pipes and guts. It takes athlete-like focus. A decade ago, singer Jill Minor sang the "Star-Spangled Banner" on the Florida Panthers' opening night -- alongside an actual panther. When the club set off indoor fireworks during "rockets' red glare," the animal panicked, lunging at Minor.

Minor cooly finished the song, hitting every note.

"You saw the [animal's] trainer come out and tackle the panther," said former team event coordinator Angela Carrasco. "I was like, 'Oh my God,' I almost killed our anthem singer."

Small wonder, then, that when Whitney Houston performed her memorable anthem rendition at Super Bowl XXV in January 1991, she did the sensible thing. She lip-synched.

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.


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