Oh Say, Renée

I don’t use this blog to troll others, although it’s been attempted once, twice, or thrice in the past. In general, I find the whole trolling culture to be a waste. It goes nowhere, even though it may be incredibly popular. Having said that, since I have the time, it’s worth pointing out an odd article/blog over at The Washington Post by the classical music critic Anne Midgette about Renée Fleming‘s performance of The Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl. (And, believe me, I’ll be the first to concede that my scheming away in my dark, untrodden corner of the internet won’t even register on the Post‘s or Midgette’s radar.) I’m not out to fisk, but a couple items have annoyingly stuck with me over the last couple days.

Full disclosure: I enjoyed the performance (as much as I can enjoy over-the-top versions of the national anthem, anyway). And, having turned the TV off afterwards, it was the most I’ve seen of a Super Bowl in I don’t know how long.

First, a major point of agreement with Ms. Midgette. Like many other classical music-oriented folk, I developed an almost partisan attitude about the performance. Admittedly, there was a small part of me that was genuinely pleased/excited when it was announced that Renée Fleming would be singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, the first opera singer to do so. The timing couldn’t have been better considering the latest circular firing squad about the death of classical music, etc. And I must confess that I, along with many of my musical colleagues, was excited to have a trained, virtuosic singer bask in the glory for a change. I by no means think training is everything – much of this blog complains about such things – but let the academy have the spotlight now and again. Besides, without getting on too high a horse, lip-synching (and finger-synching) is all too common, and enjoying some live music is a welcome change of pace.

I’ve read the Post piece three times, and I still don’t know how Anne really felt about Ms. Fleming’s performance. (But at least she wrote something, which is more than I can say for most. For all the hubbub leading up to the performance, afterwards you’d almost think it didn’t happen.) I think the source of my frustration lies in the opening paragraph. Anne rightly points out the classical community’s insecurity about its place in society. But then, instead of writing confidently about the opera star, Ms. Midgette hedges and takes an almost hipster turn, praising Queen Latifah’s “sounding easy” and looking “drop-dead perfect” in her casual attire. This is followed by Anne’s sniping Renée’s formalwear. I read that as the classical music critic herself feeling somewhat out of place and trying to “play nice” in the popular realm by writing about a sporting event. (“Oh, hey, I’m one of y’all! Did you see that diva?! Ick!”)

Not to speak ill of royalty, but I thought Queen Latifah sounded easy because she probably wasn’t trying too hard. I know my wife (a music teacher) and I cringed on the couch during America the Beautiful and shared quite the chuckle afterwards. Add in the ghosting musicians behind her and it was quite the musical circus. If Renée had a “faux-pop” sound, then Latifah’s was faux-good. It’s true that Ms. Fleming was a touch flat in parts, but big whoop. Not only did she sound lovely – though, that arrangement left much to be desired – but, again, she came to the table and delivered. And of course Queen Latifah was relaxed. She performs in such environments on a regular basis, whereas Renée – clearly the superior vocalist – was in an alien environment, from the amplification to the massive crowds to the televised spectacle.

Having written this, I suppose my real contention is with the author’s apparent hedging. There’s no need to kowtow to the popular music establishment. You’re the classical music critic – I don’t think anyone’s expecting you to opine about the wonders of 90s pop stars. Such insecurity does as much to perpetuate the myth of classical music’s death as some tripe in Slate. After all, if those in the classical community seem relatively embarrassed about belonging to it, why would others find it worthwhile?

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