Why Fergie had no Choice but to Massacre our National Anthem
What Did I Really Think?
Wow. Wow, this was so bad I almost have no words. Except, because I’m a voice professional, I have a billion words. You’re thinking this was as bad as when Pink did it. Nope. Way worse.
We’ve read plethoras of hot takes about two very public national anthems recently–one by a technical genius with the flu (Pink), and one by someone with no apparent technical skill at all (Fergie). Confusion abounds these two performances. What was going on? Why were they so bad? I’m here to unpack it all for you. Here goes:
First, let’s just talk about the national anthem. The national anthem has rules, like serious rules, rules about how it’s to be performed, rules about one’s comportment while it is being sung. There are actually laws in place to prevent “tampering” with the national anthem, laws the Boston Police took a bit too far in enforcing when they arrested Igor Stravinsky for “tampering with the chord structure”.
The intention of the song is to make us feel a certain way: proud, patriotic. It should make us stand up a little taller. And even if one isn’t particularly patriotic (I’m not), when one agrees to perform the national anthem, that person should understand the job at hand. It is the job of the singer to honor the music first.
Fergie’s national anthem
Stylistically, it seems as though she’s trying to copy an old jazz style that’s returned to vogue in the past few years, and my first question is WHY? Why SEXY? Why why why? And then I realized it’s because her technique won’t let her do anything else. And here’s your first technical lesson:
The vocal folds are tiny mucus membranes stretched horizontally. They must come together in order to make a healthy, balanced sound. It looks really gross. You can watch it here. Mistreatment of the vocal folds can cause swelling and eventually polyps (blisters) or nodes (callouses) on the folds, which don’t allow the folds to come together properly. This destroys the singing voice. Continuing to sing on a compromised instrument results in what I’m going to call an “unbalanced” sound.
So, Fergie is clearly in vocal distress. Her vocal folds no longer come together properly. She appears to have two vocal options right now:
- A pushed, strangled sound, which comes from forcing the vocal folds together using waaaaaay too many muscles. It results in pain for both singer and listener, as well as a wobbly vibrato.
- Breathiness, which results from phonating with the folds only partially closed. This can also do further damage to the voice.
Fergie sang like this because she had no other options. She had to go back and forth between pushing and breathiness, because her voice won’t let her do anything else.
Many people are asking, Why was she allowed to do this? Where were her coaches and agents and mentors telling her no?
My question is, What were her options? Her voice allowed for one type of performance, so, What should she have done instead? In the opinion of this voice professional, she should have turned down the gig and gotten her ass in to see an ENT and a reputable voice teacher immediately.
Pink’s national anthem
Pink is a technical GIANT. She sang like a boss with the flu. The 2018 flu, not some pansy-ass flu from years gone by. Let’s just assume that she had body aches, a fever, exhaustion, a runny nose, and swelling on her vocal folds. Yup, we’re back to the folds. Hers were definitely swollen, but you can tell that they’re still healthy overall.
Pink had a pocket of sound right in her middle range that was still unmistakably “Pink”. Robust, vibrant, exciting. It was in her extended belt that she ran into problems. And that’s because she was ill.
So, what should Pink have done? What were her options? Turn down the gig? Bad idea. How often is one asked to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl? If she had been in any more vocal distress, canceling would have been the answer. As it was, she did the right thing.
But still, Where were her coaches? Had Pink made some different vocal choices for her embellishments, we may have never known she was sick. She is used to doing whatever she wants vocally, trusting her voice to take her there. But 2018 flu is a powerful dæmon.
The lesson in Pink’s performance is to be flexible in one’s vocal decisions. Her belt was gone. Okay, so pick another, lower note in the harmonic structure and sing that one instead. Yes, that’s scary since it wasn’t what she practiced, but so is cracking in front of a global audience. It’s not the best, but it’s not a disgrace (see above, Fergie).
Vocalists always have options. The challenge is to weigh them and pick the best one.