February 22, 2018

Fergie's Fearsome Fonetiks

By now a lot has been written about American singer Fergie's performance of the National Anthem at the 2018 NBA All-Star Game. There were many reasons it was so poorly received: her tone was uneven; her pitch was shaky; it sounded like she was trying to channel Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to John F. Kennedy. I'm not going to focus on the singing technique or other interesting musical choices. I'm going to look at Fergie's pronunciation because it was also strange and unexpected. Others have noted that she's not really committing to enunciation, but I'm going to explain to you what she's doing linguistically and why it's weird.

Expectation: By the dawn's early light [laɪt]
Reality: By the dawn's early lie [laɪ]

The first notable pronunciation choice we come across is Fergie not singing the "t" at the end of "light." This is called consonant deletion, and it's going to be a recurring theme in this performance. "T"s at the ends of words are common victims for consonant deletion in singing, because word-final "t"s aren't strongly pronounced in modern English. This is probably the least egregious violation of expected pronunciation we're getting from Fergie tonight.

Expectation: What so proudly we hailed [heɪld]
Reality: What so proudlay way haiw [heɪw]

Fergie makes the interesting decision to break the 'ee' /i/ sound at the end of 'proudly' and 'we' into a diphthong that sounds like 'ay' [ɪi]. This makes a lot of sense as an artistic decision if you're trying to sing a modern pop song, but national anthems are generally treated with a bit more gravity than that. To wrap up this sentence, she doesn't actually say "hailed" or even "hail," but "haiw" [heɪw]. She both deletes the [d] at the end of "hailed" [heɪld] and turns the 'l' into a w, a process called l-vocalization. Either one of these probably could have gone unnoticed alone, but she used both of them at the same time, resulting in a bizarre pronunciation.

Expectation: Whose broad light and bright stars [stɑrz]
Reality: Whose broad light and bright stocks [stɑks]

I have no explanation for this one. It sounds like she was using an r-less (this is called non-rhotic) pronunciation of "stars," so it would sound like "stahhs" [stɑz], but where that "k" sound came from, I have no idea. I thought it might have been a skip in the audio, but the accompaniment doesn't seem to stop. It sounds like she misremembered the lyric and substituted a word that sounded similar.

Expectation: through the perilous [pɛrəlɨs] fight,
Reality: through the peruh-luhs [pɛrɐlɐs] fight

Instead of using a schwa [ə] (the 'a' sound in 'about') or an unstressed 'ih' [ɨ] (like roses), she uses a sound that's stronger. I'm not entirely sure what she's using, but I am sure that it has too much weight. The stress on "perilous" is on the first syllable. As a general rule, in English unstressed syllables use unstressed vowels. She went outside of the unstressed vowels set and as a result, her "perilous" sounds odd. She's basically giving each syllable an equally strong vowel.

Expectation: O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming[strimɪŋ]
Reality: O'er the reemparts we watched were so gallantly striming [strɪmɪŋ]

The 'a' sound in "ramparts" is often realized as a diphthong in American English. Instead of being a pure vowel like in "rat," it's more like if you took the vowel from "meh" and the vowel from "uh" and put them together to get "eh-uh." Now some people take the first portion of that diphthong and use a sound that's more like "may," so you have "ey-uh." Fergie goes above and beyond - literally - by overshooting the vowel and instead sounding like she's saying "reeamprats." She's also doing something bizarre on "streaming," where she uses a lax vowel like "ih" instead of the expected "ee." You can't hide behind dialects for this one, because as far as I know this isn't found in any major American dialect.

Expectation: Gave proof [pruf] through the night [naɪt] that our flag was still [stɪl] there:
Reality: Gave proo [pru] through the nigh [naɪ] that our flag was stiw [stɪw] there:

This is the one that got me when I was watching the video: Fergie straight-up doesn't say the final consonant in "proof," or "night" for that matter. You can try listening for the "f" in "proof" as much as you like, but you're not going to find it. Consonant deletion in "night" wouldn't be too strange because "t"s at the end of words in English are weakly articulated. Not saying the "f" in "proof," though, is bizarre, since "f"s are not prone to being deleted. To wrap it all up, she's also doing some l-vocalization in "still" so that the "l" sounds like a "w" to get "stiw."

Now some degree of deviation from vowel norms is normal when singing. After all, I have dedicated a whole series to the ways that singers use pronunciations that are not theirs in order to achieve an artistic goal. Fergie's mistake was that she just made too many odd choices. In tandem with the over-singing and poor technique on display, as well as the unusual jazz (???) backing for the anthem, it all worked together to bring this performance over the top into the list of infamous performances of the American National Anthem.

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