You probably already know that Fergie sang the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday night. That might be because you are a basketball fan and watched the game, or it might be because of the overwhelming number of news outlets who have panned her performance. I'm sure there are exceptions, but most of the stories go like this: Fergie gave the "Star Spangled Banner" a sexy spin, she sang a few or many notes off-key, some of the basketball players made faces, then everyone on Twitter slammed her for it.
It was not a groundbreaking event. When a song has been performed as many times as Francis Scott Key's ode to the flag has, by as many different types of artists, those vocalists are going to be under pressure to "make it their own." Otherwise, they'll be criticised for being boring. Or (gasp) be ignored altogether. So some coverage of this story has included a little bit of historical perspective, as in: Remember when Roseanne Barr sang the national anthem? (Roseanne herself tweeted this too, btw.) How about when these other celebs screwed it up? Or when these did a much better job?
I admit I was eager to click on these stories at first. I watched the video. I read some of the tweets. I had some thoughts of my own about it. I knew when I signed on for work this morning that I would be facing the question of whether to jump on the Fergie-hating bandwagon. But as I scrolled through story after story and tweet after tweet, I realised this was no longer about her. It's about people on Twitter and the people writing headlines who are trying to outdo each other with the wittiest burn. I've written those articles. I've written those tweets. But for some reason, this morning, I'm thinking about what it must be like for Fergie to read them. That's not because I'm some fan of her work, I promise.
Yes, Fergie is a public figure. She's made a career based on the popular approval of the masses. Doesn't that mean we're free to criticise her however we want to? Well yes, but perhaps we could also consider the difference between criticism and bullying. I like the way Arielle Tschinkel put it in a Hello Giggles story about differentiating between the two in the workplace: "[B]ullying hinges on intent, so you can ask yourself, 'What is the intent here?' "
If the intent of everyone writing about Fergie is to make her sing better or to warn people away from listening to her music, that's one thing. It seems that in this case, the intent for tweeters and headline writers alike is to get people to read and laugh at their own words.
"People should know that a single online comment has sent me into a depression spiral," Kesha told a group of teens at an anti-bullying workshop at SXSW last year. We don't know if Fergie has the same kind of vulnerabilities as Kesha, but do we need to?
"Twitter is basically a mutual approval machine," Jon Ronson, author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed, said in a TED Talk in 2015. That approval makes us feel so good, doesn't it? But Ronson has interviewed people whose bad jokes became targets of a barrage of Twitter attacks, and they reported feeling much the same way as Kesha.
"They talked to me about depression, and anxiety and insomnia and suicidal thoughts," Ronson said. "One woman I talked to, who also told a joke that landed badly, she stayed home for a year and a half. Before that, she worked with adults with learning difficulties, and was apparently really good at her job."
Even as I write this, it is still so tempting to undermine my own argument with a joke about Fergie here, or even a link to someone else's clever joke. This time, I'm going to resist it.