Monday, February 7, 2011

The heartbreak of public brain-flatulence

She’s sold more than 30 million albums worldwide, and she’s won five Grammys, but Christina Aguilera is one of us. She proved it on Sunday night in her performance singing the National Anthem before the start of Super Bowl XLV.

Aguilera was in her usual vocal swoops and arabesques singing the song she’s said she has performed since she was 7 years old. Then it happened. Aguilera replaced the proper phrase — "O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming" — with "What so proudly we watched at the twilight's last gleaming." Which manages to screw up an attempted repeat of a phrase in the first verse (“watched” should be “hailed”).

You remember the “so gallantly streaming” phrase. It’s the one scrawled in the folds of your cerebellum as indelibly as the Lascaux cave drawings in France, that phrase you committed to memory when you were, what, five or six?

Nowhere to be found on Sunday night.

Trouper that she is. Aguilera toughed it out the best she could; Lady Gaga’s not the only poker face around; Aguilera brought sincerity and conviction to most of the rest of the song, as befits a professional. But still. This is one for that blooper reel of pop-culture fails that you just don’t want to be on.

At least she owned up quickly. "I got so lost in the moment of the song that I lost my place,” she said in a statement to The Associated Press “I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and that the true spirit of its anthem still came through."

Hot Boudain, commenting at HuffPost, ain’t having any. His reaction was, well, pitch-perfect: “I hate when singers try to make the National Anthem sound like an altar call at the New Zion Holiness Tabernacle and Pomade Emporium Baptist Church.”

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It’s a funny thing about the National Anthem — and almost any of the more popular entries in the cultural songbook. Our first experience with those songs usually isn’t by way of a lyric sheet, it’s more likely to have occurred audibly, through an open window or the dopplerized version heard coming out of a passing car.

So the lyrics are often as not something we recall almost in a rote, primitive kind of ordinal expectation. We’ve heard them before, we know the inflections, their prosody and rhythms. We seem to know almost intuitively, what the next word is and the next word and the next after that. We don’t so much know what the words say as we know how the words “go.”

Sometimes we get it right, like Aguilera did when she sang the Anthem and nailed it at the age of 11, before an NHL playoffs between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Black Hawks in May 1992.

Sometimes we don’t, like Aguilera did in 2007, at an NBA All-Star Game.

She had another outbreak of cerebral flatulence, so gallantly screaming, on Sunday.

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Well ... It happens to all of us — usually in the relative privacy of a drunken night out with friends in a half-empty bar, or the absolute privacy of the shower stall. Not in front of at least 100 111 million people planetwide in the United States. No pressure there, right?

Brain farts while singing are an equal opportunity thing. And everybody brain-farts singing the Anthem. Goofing it up is as much a national pastime as singing the damn thing in the first place.

It’s all right, Christina. Five Grammys on the mantelpiece outweigh this by just a lil’ bit.

But next time, girl, be sure. If you’ve been doing this since the age of seven, you need to nail it. Find the lyrics; they’ll fit on a 3x5 card. Get the hard copy. Look at it. Pretend they’re the words from that hot dope single by Francis Scott MC Key, the one that’s been on the charts for forever.

You’ll remember 'em then.

Image credit: Aguilera: FOX/National Football League

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