Last month, poor Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas was roundly mocked across the planet for her rendition of the American national anthem at the NBA All Star game. She’d sung the important ditty in what was described as an “inappropriate” jazz style. In fact, her performance – though raw and rather out of tune – was basically done in the same R&B manner that dominates the world of singing: breathy and melismatic.
Significantly, Fergie thought there was nothing wrong with it at the time – “Let’s play some basketball!” she cried. But the next day she apologised, insisting that she loved America. I’ve never seen a hugely famous pop star say sorry for sounding bad. I was sad to see that Fergie is not exempt from the constant fluctuations in self-confidence that dog the lives of the rest of us. But then I realised: this is what makes Fergie great. “I did my best,” she said to her dissenters. That was unusual.
The Black Eyed Peas are the third-richest band in the world: it was after Fergie joined as lead singer, in 2002, that they had all their hits, including “My Humps”. They have sold 76 million records to date. When Fergie took a break from the band last year – she has since quit – founder will.i.am downplayed her role, saying she’d always been a “featured female” among many. Fergie blinked away this apparent diss when I asked her about it at a hotel in Marylebone before Christmas. What are relationships like within the band, I said? “What would you like to know?”
Fergie, now 42 with a four-year-old son, wanted to talk about decorating. She was going through a divorce, but spoke about her husband as though she wasn’t. She also made reference to the caged beast within her! Fergie once revealed that she has a closet at home full of superhero costumes. Having a child has made her want more creative control over her music, she explained. Her solo albums are named in honour of our British Fergie: The Dutchess and Double Dutchess (the latter came out in September).
With the Black Eyed Peas, she was “the girl part to all their different male parts. The band is not the place for me to explode my creative, personal juices all over everything. That is their job. This metaphor could get weird.” Some songs on Double Dutchess were co-written by will.i.am, who contributed the line “rub on your titties, ladies”, among others. Fergie said he brought out a certain “chutzpah” in her. But really, on their working relationship, “people have no idea. They think they know. But they have no idea at all.”
Most of Fergie’s interviews take place on TV in front of millions, and she spoke a little as though she were on a studio couch, keeping it all fluttering forward. She said: “I don’t play instruments.” And: “I’ve never made a pun I didn’t like.”
She was a child star from the age of eight to 14, on Kids Incorporated, a TV show about a fictional pop band. Her Catholic teacher parents took her to musicals: “I could mimic really well.” She would listen to Janis Joplin; Tina Turner once pointed at her from the stage.
Her mother would write flow charts to show her the consequences of her choices: “You can be in the next season of the TV show,” she would say, “but you won’t be able to go to Janelle’s slumber party.” That was good parenting, Fergie thinks. When she was 14, she got into gangster rap and decided she no longer wanted to have a permanent smile on her face. At 18, with the girl group Wild Orchid, she got a record deal. “Our sound was too urban for pop radio, but our look was too Caucasian,” she reflects. She hit her “crazy times” then, blowing her TV savings on a serious meth habit, having a paranoid incident in a church and moving back in with her mother.
But she’s talked about all that ad nauseam, she told me, handing me a boiled sweet and unwrapping one for herself. She craved freedom from her band after giving birth, and now she has that freedom. It’s the beats that bring out the beast in her, she said: she felt all pumped up, like an athlete before a game. That was probably how she felt when she took the mic with the NBA All Stars, too. Keep it up, Fergie.
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left