Christina Aguilera’s Star-Spangled Melisma

brent johnson explains why the real problem with christina aguilera’s super-bowl performance wasn’t that she flubbed the lyrics …

I didn’t expect to be thinking about Christina Aguilera last night. Not while I was standing in Madison Square Garden, watching a Prince concert.

But a day earlier, Aguilera shocked millions of viewers — and drew the ire of the blogosphere — by flubbing the lyrics to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ At the Super Bowl. Eek.

Masses of people were reportedly offended, upset and stupefied. I was one of them. But not for the reason you’d think.

Mistakes happen — and I can understand forgetting the words to even the most famous song when you’re standing in the middle of an NFL stadium, surrounded by television cameras. Actually, I thought Aguilera did a remarkable job covering up her gaffe. Would you have had the poise to spontaneously rearrange the lyrics from a previous line and never stumble?

But it’s what happened next that bothered me.

The pop starlet could have helped erase her mistake by finishing the song with grace. All that required was using her naturally gorgeous, powerful voice to belt out an already pretty melody. Instead, she turned the tune into scrambled eggs, filling it with manic, roller-coaster vocal runs. By the time it was over, I didn’t know whether she was saluting America or auditioning for American Idol.

It’s a style of singing called melisma, and I know it’s common in this post-Mariah Carey world. But can anyone honestly tell me they found the last 30 seconds of Aguilera’s performance anything but annoying and awkward to listen to?

To me at least, melisma is less entertaining than self-serving. Aguilera can sing — better than most. But Sunday, it felt like she was trying so hard to remind us. That’s like an “A” student who brags to their classmates about acing a term paper. Or a baseball player smacking a home run and trotting around the bases backwards. Or every time John Mayer rips into a guitar solo — there’s obvious talent, but it’s obscured by the total douchery of his look-what-I-can-do facial expressions.

Which brings me to Prince. Last night, I watched the Purple One use his microphone as a dancing partner, shriek like a lovesick dinosaur and break into a string of gushing guitar solos.

Yes, it was flashy. Over-the-top. Ridiculous. But never once did he seem self-serving. He is endlessly talented — a master of more than a dozen instruments, a hitmaker with more than a dozen Top 10 singles. But he uses that talent, that flair to entertain — not to flaunt. It’s about thrilling the audience — not using them to stroke an ego.

That’s the difference between a showman and showoff.

(On a side note, another thought went spinning through my mind as I giddly watched Prince.

He’s been a star for more than 30 years now — and for some performers, that means regurgitating a handful of hits in plastic, karaoke form. It’s happened to Neil Diamond, Rod Stewart, and sadly, even to Billy Joel and Elton John of late.

But not Prince. Hearing him rip into ‘Little Red Corvette’ with charmingly cocky confidence, it’s not just a nostalgic pleasure. He still seems energetic, alive. That’s the difference between faded stars and ongoing genius.

The only other classic artists I can think of that still generates that kind of feeling, even when they’re ripping into 20-year-old songs? Paul McCartney and U2. That’s pretty good company for Prince to be in.)


  1. I’m so glad you wrote this because I completely agree. The fact that she screwed up the line really didn’t bother me. But she went sooooooooo over the top. It was horrible.

    And as for classic artists that can still rip into their old songs just as hard now as they did 20 years ago, I’d have to include Bruce Springsteen.

  2. If these so called singers would sing the National Anthem the way its supposed to sung instead of trying to make some sort of “artistic” statement then they wouldn’t have to suffer this embarrassment. Trying to turn the anthem into some hip-hop or whatever is being called music now a days is atrocious. Yeah I know someone is going to say they have the right to express them selves and you’re right I just wish they would try on Jingle Bells.