Pop songbird Christina Aguilera has been ridiculed and condemned in every forum imaginable for botching the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl. The last time a performer got this kind of abuse for a National Anthem performance (not counting Roseanne Barr’s infamous crotch-grabbing, off-key screeching of the anthem to begin a San Diego Padres game, which was not so much a performance as a clinical demonstration of what boorishness looks and sounds like) was when the late Robert Goulet massacred the lyrics before a national radio audience to introduce the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston Heavyweight Championship fight. The incident haunted Goulet the rest of his life, although he was a good sport about it.
As with Goulet (he was Canadian, for heaven’s sake!), the condemnation of Aguilera is not merely unfair, but ignorant. Professionals are human and make mistakes. Superb singers forget lyrics; excellent actors forget lines; smart U.S. Senators forget about the existence of the U.S. Supreme Court. Americans are so used to the auto-tuned, digitally manipulated, edited, scrubbed, slick and artificially perfect performances they hear on recordings and see on television that they can’t comprehend that every live performance, no matter who the performer is, carries a potential for disaster. You have heard no singers criticize Aguilera, not only because every single one of them knows that what happened to her could easily happen to them, but because something similar has happened to them, probably several times.
For a sportswriter, TV commentator or blogger to mock Aguilera when none of them have the slightest inkling of what it is like to sing live in a packed football stadium, and would probably soil themselves if they had to do so, is a particularly odious form of public bullying. They are implying that she is somehow unprofessional (Aguilera? Never.), dimwitted ( No.) and unpatriotic (Oh, shut up!) because she did something as inevitable for a singer as losing the car keys is for the rest of us, or saying something really stupid is for a sportswriter.
Christina did breach ethical standards last Sunday, however—just not the ones every one is beating on her about.
The singer’s delivery of “The Star Spangled Banner” was tasteless, self-indulgent and inappropriate for the important role she had been assigned. Other pop stars–Mariah Carey, pre-crack Whitney Houston, and many more—equally capable of turning the appropriated 17th Century drinking ballad tune into a nearly unrecognizable sequences of riffs and embellishments refrained from doing so out of respect for what the performance of the anthem is supposed to symbolize. Whether or not one liked Aguilera’s vocal acrobatics (I tend to agree with Simon Cowell, who opined that they sounded like everyone in the stadium had simultaneously sat on cats), they were appropriate for a half-time show, when the entertainment is about the performers, not the singing of the National Anthem, which is, and must be, about the song itself and the country it honors. If a singer insists on using the song to show off, the National Anthem’s actual melody provides plenty of opportunity. Aguilera’s performance was immodest, disrespectful and in bad taste, because she chose a moment created to honor America and tried to make it a diva exhibition.
Her forgetting the lyrics wasn’t unpatriotic. It was justice.