COLUMBIA — It's the rockets' red glare that always gets people, isn't it?
Well, maybe not, since the first thing the judges did was hand me a copy of the lyrics.
Really? It's not the high G that trips people up? They can't remember whether it's "o'er the ramparts" or "so proudly"? I thought that was just a problem Christina Aguilera had.
Some of the previous auditioners had actually forgotten the words, freezing mid-song, pulling out a phone to look up the lyrics and starting over. Some had the lyrics in front of them to begin with. The judging standards for singing the national anthem apparently don't include "knows words to song."
Is this normally how they do it? The most recognized song in America and we need to hold up cue cards? Do they use a teleprompter at the Super Bowl now?
But for me, I stumbled on the rockets' red glare. After all, I wasn't at Mizzou Arena to sing. I was there to find and write a story people would want to read. But once the last singer cleared the stage and the two judges, both employees in the athletics department, started to pick up their scoring papers from the sideline table, I stepped back on to the court.
I hesitated. Paused.
"Can I just go talk into the microphone?"
Secretly, I wanted to sing. I wanted to belt out every country song I'd ever learned, all the songs I sing in the shower and in the car and when I'm singing myself to sleep. If I weren't at Missouri studying journalism, I'd be in Nashville, crying about boys with Taylor Swift and trading songwriting tips with Tim McGraw and asking Dolly Parton if she's ever gone out in public without a wig. And I'd be singing with the best of them.
Well ... maybe not.
My three sisters and brother can all sing and play piano. I can play piano. The Dolly Parton dream pops every time I listen to myself sing. I took voice lessons over the summer and learned how to control my voice and breathe right, but I've only practiced twice since moving to Missouri in August. I'm not sure what my six housemates would do if I spent my days hissing like a deflating tire and screeching operatic arpeggios.
And I'm not sure when I last sang the whole anthem.
But that microphone looked so enticing, alone on middle of the basketball court. It would take a tiny sound and make it big. Stage-worthy.
This could be the closest I'd ever come to singing in front of 15,061 people.
Heck, it would probably be the only time I'd ever sing in front of 15,061 empty seats plus two judges.
I walked out, stood in front of the mic. I can't even remember what I said. It was hard to hear at first. I leaned closer. And then, magically, the judges asked if I could sing.
"Oh, say can you see," I sang. I stopped. "OK, that's it."
Andrew Schuster, one of the judges and a marketing associate in the athletics department, told me it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
I mean, I had to pretend that I wasn't all that convinced. I was a professional reporter doing my job. Or I was too cool to act excited.
BUT OH MY GOSH I GET TO SING INTO THIS MICROPHONE OVER THIS SOUND SYSTEM IN THIS HUGE PLACE AND ONLY TWO PEOPLE WILL HEAR HOW AWESOME/TERRIBLE I AM AND THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER!
You don't even have to face us, the judges said.
So I took a drink of water, cleared my throat, pulled the microphone out of the stand — if I was going to do this, I had to do it all the way — and turned my back to the judges. I picked a starting note.
I totally don't need these lyrics. At least if the singing is a disaster, they'll know I know the lyrics.
I held my folded copy of the lyrics by my side.
It went well for a few bars. ("Well" is a relative term.) Determined not to pull a Pamela Bell (the ill-advised singer in Maya Rudolph's parody of anthem singers at sporting events), I stuck to a traditional rendition.
But the vocal cords and the part of the brain that memorizes lyrics are very separate things.
Oh dear, no wonder people have trouble staying on pitch. These low notes are quite low.
But I had nothing to lose. I sang right through "gleaming" and "streaming." Gaining confidence, I turned around. I might've even held my non-microphone hand out for emphasis. I felt like I could just double over and scrunch my eyes shut tight and grasp at the air, overcome with the emotion of my country's theme song.
Oh, stop it, Rebecca. You're not Beyonce.
Oops. Just got to one of the high notes. Pause. Bonnie, my dear voice teacher, warned me not to belt, but here I was with a microphone in my hand, and all her lessons went out the window. But I couldn't just keep belting all the way up through C, D, E, F, G.
"And the rockets' red glare ..."
Could've been a different girl singing that line.
"The bombs bursting in air ..."
As I finished, the bleachers exploded with thunderous applause. The verdict came in from the judges. Five! Better than one! But not quite as good as 10.
The judges were charitable.
"If you could make it all the way through the song, you might be able to sing at one of our smaller sporting events."
That's probably not what they told Taylor Swift. Actually, I know that's not what they told Taylor Swift because she sang at a 76ers NBA game when she was 11.
I climbed the steps and walked out of the arena, past closed gates and screened-off concession stands. The sky was mostly dark.
I'm pretty sure I sang the anthem to myself on the car ride home.