Tough to hit right note with anthem singers

February, 8, 2011
2/08/11
3:52
PM CT


I watched one of the most-talked about flubs as this year's Super Bowl -- Christina Aguilera's mistake-plagued version of The Star Spangled Banner -- and shook my head in empathy for both her and the person at the NFL that chooses the performer for that song.

I have that duty here at Texas Motor Speedway, and it is one of the worst responsibilities I shoulder for each of our events. Getting the right person to perform live in front of a couple-hundred thousand people, in our case, and millions more via television is a tough thing to do. I personally do not like artists who perform vocal gymnastics the way Aguilera does in her version and try to find someone who does it straight -- the way I believe Francis Scott Key intended when he wrote the song. But so often, the artist provides a tape performing the song one way and then does a completely different version live.

With live, there’s no second take, no taking it back.

So back to Aguilera. First, know that she simply made a mistake. She did not change the song on purpose. Big time professional or not, everybody makes a mistake and she mistakenly left out some words. She’s performed it successfully before, including prior to the start of a 1992 NHL Stanley Cup Finals game. Don't blame her.

In rehearsals Friday, two days prior to the Super Bowl, Aguilera practiced only a portion of the song. At some point, she stopped in the middle of the song and simply walked off stage. It wasn’t clear if she had a problem, was unhappy with something or was displeased with her performance. She later returned and performed the complete anthem.

Part of the purpose of rehearsal is for the artist to make sure they can comfortably hear through their in-ear monitors. In big, cavernous venues, like Cowboys Stadium or outdoors, it is hard to hear. And you have to hear to stay in tune.

I've stood nearby many different artists as they performed the song. From military band members to country superstar Sara Evans to concert maestro Van Cliburn to the TCU Marching Band and many more, each perform it in their own unique style. Typically we look for recording stars with a proven track record of performance.

The one time I have varied from that was when I saw an 11-year-old Lewis Warren Jr. perform on the piano in my church. I asked Lewis to perform the anthem before the Samsung Mobile 500 a few years ago. Lewis, resplendent in a white tuxedo, coolly sat down at the white Steinway baby grand piano and played the most beautiful rendition of the National Anthem I have ever heard. Lewis hit the last note right on cue, perfectly timed for the military jets fly-by overhead. Lewis' big smile outshined his bright, white tuxedo.

We received more complimentary mail from that performance than any before or since. In fact, we started receiving complimentary emails from around the country before the green flag dropped to start the race minutes later.

So knowing how much anxiety comes from trying to nail the National Anthem perfectly, I felt for Aguilera and the nameless person from the National Football League on Sunday.

Thankfully the game was much more enjoyable than the anthem.

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