Sure, everyone knows the melody. It's from an 18th-century English drinking song. The words are from Francis Scott Key's 1814 poem about the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Put them together and you have a recipe for potential public humiliation. Somewhere between "Oh, say, can you see" and "the home of the brave," even singing stars mangle the verses and end up bombing as spectacularly as the shells that were bursting in air over the ramparts in Baltimore two centuries ago.
Just ask Christina Aguilera, who was said to be "devastated" after she fumbled the lyrics at last month's Super Bowl XLV.
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It's not that the pop star was unfamiliar with the national anthem. She's been belting it out flawlessly since she was a kid. Listen to an 11-year-old Aguilera's performance at Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992.
"I got so caught up in the moment of the song that I lost my place," Aguilera explained in a statement after her Super Bowl blunder. It's happened to plenty of others over the years. Willie Nelson famously booted the anthem at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. His excuse: "The teleprompter wasn't rolling at the same speed that I was."
At NASCAR's Pepsi 500 two years ago, Jesse McCartney's performance crashed and burned in the first turn, before the race even started.
Misery loves company. McCartney might have comforted himself by going to YouTube and entering the magic words "Anthem epic fail montage." Caution: The following includes Roseanne Barr's legendary 1990 performance at a San Diego Padres game. Don't say you weren't warned.
As Barr proved, the national anthem can get you into trouble even if you do remember all the words. Jose Feliciano created a furor with just his voice and acoustic guitar when he did a simple, soulful version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Game 5 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit. It was unlike anything most Americans had ever heard. Many in a nation already deeply divided over the Vietnam War were outraged by the Puerto Rican pop star taking liberties with the national anthem.
Beloved Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell also came under fire because he'd invited Feliciano to perform. The two became friends, and when Harwell died last year at age 92, the tribute to him at Comerica Park included Feliciano singing the anthem in Detroit for the first time in 42 years.
The year after Feliciano's historic performance at Tiger Stadium, a very different kind of guitar player broke a sonic barrier with his own twist on the anthem at Woodstock. Jimi Hendrix told Dick Cavett a few weeks later that he didn't consider his electrifying interpretation of "The Star-Spangled Banner" to be "unorthodox."
Aguilera's Super Bowl anthem screw-up generated days of discussion about the worst of all time -- and the best. Frequently mentioned as an example of how to do it right was Whitney Houston's stirring performance at another Super Bowl, in the midst of the Persian Gulf War.
As powerful and precise as Houston's singing was in 1991, there are rare instances in which a little imperfection makes the national anthem even more moving. On Jan. 8, Elizabeth Hughes sang the song to open an ice hockey game in Norfolk, Va. The 8-year-old with the big voice was doing well -- right up until "gave proof." That's when her microphone went dead. It could have been a mortifying moment for one little girl and another entry on the long list of anthem disasters. But watch what happened next.
Yes, it's easy to get the words scrambled. Yes, it's hard to hit the high notes. And, no, you probably don't sound as good as Whitney Houston or even Elizabeth Hughes. But when you and everyone around you sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" together, it doesn't matter if someone makes a mistake. The more voices we hear united in an American chorus, the better the old song sounds.