Allow us, for a moment, to salute the national anthem. It’s a difficult song musically, but one with obvious importance and considerable emotional heft. A great performance can hush a crowd, prompt joyful smiles, command attention, create a moment. And those performances are typically straightforward and direct.
For some reason, though, far too many celebrities and pop stars feel compelled to give the anthem some distinctive flair, when all it really cries out for is simplicity. (Listen to D.C. Washington, a great Washingtonian, for an example of how to do this correctly.) The anthem should be solemn (but not too solemn, at least at a sporting event). It should be heartfelt. And when the singer reaches “the home of the brave,” people should definitely not be laughing.
Oh, hey, Fergie. We’re looking at you.
“I’ve always been honored and proud to perform the national anthem, and last night, I wanted to try something special for the NBA,” the Black Eyed Peas singer told TMZ, the day after her odd rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the NBA All-Star Game was widely panned. “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.”
The game’s participants tried their best to keep a straight face as she yodeled on. What is she even saying here?
In the annals of bad anthems, how bad was this one? It’s at least in the conversation with the worst of the worst.
Here’s proof: Roseanne Barr, who set a new standard for wretchedness with her 1990 version at a Padres game, tweeted, “I think mine was better lowkey.” That’s pretty bad.
President Bush, recall, called Barr’s performance “disgraceful” at the time, while opera star Robert Merrill called it “a national disgrace.”
“While Roseanne has indicated she did her best under some very difficult circumstances, it is apparent we did not do our part because many fans were offended both by the rendition and Roseanne’s gestures,” team president Dick Freeman later said. “To those fans, we apologize and make the commitment that in the future we will strive to see that the anthem is presented with the dignity it is due.”
At least she didn’t have to write the lyrics on her hand, a la Michael Bolton before a Red Sox game during the 2003 playoffs.
The Boston Herald wrote the next morning that late Yankees coach Don Zimmer “should have charged Michael Bolton, who forgot the words to the national anthem!” The performance also prompted some boos.
Then there’s Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and his harmonica (!), which probably will never be invited back to the Indianapolis 500.
”I got in trouble my whole life for having a big mouth,” Tyler said after his controversial 2001 performance, in which he changed the anthem’s closing words, among other offenses. ”I’m very proud to be an American, and live in the home of the brave.”
“While we are certainly sorry that some were offended, it was neither our intention nor that of Mr. Tyler to be disrespectful,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George said in a statement. ”All of us have the utmost respect for the sacrifice our veterans have made for us.”
But the version widely recognized as the worst anthem rendition appears to be the one delivered by Carl Lewis before a 1993 regular season NBA game. “An unintentionally comical rendition,” the Chicago Sun-Times called it, writing that Lewis was “failing miserably to hit several high notes.”
“Memo to Carl Lewis: Don’t quit your day job,” the Associated Press wrote after that performance, which has now been discussed for a quarter-century.
“If that’s what you want to define me as, that’s more on you than me,” Lewis said on “Oprah: Where Are They Now?”
Lewis acknowledged that he didn’t do the song justice, a fact that did not require his acknowledgment.
“I was actually under the weather and did not want to do it,” he explained. “But then, you can’t back out.”
But he said he remains glad that performance happened, calling it “part of [my] journey.”
As a palate cleanser, here’s Marvin Gaye’s 1983 performance at the NBA All-Star Game. Hip but respectful. Sultry but not too sexy. Still just right.