Getting to Carnegie Hall, the old joke goes, takes practice, practice, practice. Or: You can be invited to take a once-in-a-lifetime bow on the most famous stage in New York City by a movie studio promoting the Meryl Streep period biopic Florence Foster Jenkins, a flick about a remarkable turn of the century lady of remarkably dubious vocal talent who managed to sell out Carnegie Hall despite having what many still consider “the world’s worst voice.”
That’s the tragicomic legend of Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite and lifelong music lover who befriended and financed the great composers of the early 20th century and dreamed of becoming a world-class soprano herself. When a debilitating hand injury cut short a youthful piano career, she molded herself into a middle-aged patroness-songbird whose shriekingly pitchy recitals were nevertheless celebrated by circles of close, forgiving, possibly delusional sympathizers.
According to the Stephen Frears-directed drama, Jenkins was a friendly if complicated lady who loved to throw potato salad luncheons and absolutely lived for music. She was, very probably, a delight. In 1944, at the age of 76, Jenkins dared to take her lifelong dream to Carnegie Hall. In front of a sold-out crowd of thousands, she sang screechy, cacophonous opera. But for the first time the audience included mainstream music critics not in her pocket. The reviews demolished her. As Flo-Fo-Jenks’ story goes, the shocked socialite suffered a heart attack days later and died within months.
Did Jenkins perish of a broken heart or a wounded ego, her indomitable spirit crushed by those bully critics? Well, it might’ve been the syphilis she’d contracted on her wedding night at the age of 17, or the medication doctors prescribed at the time for said condition—a restorative cocktail of mercury and arsenic, which also likely ruined her voice, hearing, and nervous system.
Yet in Florence Foster Jenkins, the incomparable Meryl Streep manages not only the impossible for Meryl Streep—to sing terribly, on purpose—she also lends a deeply human spirit to the woman who, yes, coasted on privilege for years, but also faced down the ultimate challenge for any intrepid soul attempting the extraordinary at the risk of utter failure: Smiling in the faces of her haters. “People may say I can’t sing,” Jenkins is said to have once said, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
That’s the admirably unsinkable perspective that’s stuck with me in the month since I accepted Paramount’s offer to take the very same stage at Carnegie Hall to warble a ditty for posterity. Singing at Carnegie Hall is an impossible dream for so many actual singers who toil and persevere their entire lives for a chance like this. Who was I to say no?
What I wasn’t prepared for, no matter how many karaoke nights I’ve spent training for this very moment (and there have been many, so many), was how daunting an experience it would be. I only had one shot, I told myself. Do not miss this chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime. Eminem was really onto something, I decided. He and Florence Foster Jenkins were kindred spirits. If she’d only had rap to fall back on instead of singing opera with that voice, all of her critics would’ve had to eat crow.
Well, what can I say? Insane thoughts run through your mind when you know you’re about to do something risky in front of strangers—even if Carnegie’s main hall, with 2,804 seats on five pristine levels that have hosted legendary performances since 1891, was completely empty for me. As I awaited my Carnegie moment I marveled at the other singers took their turn in the spotlight, like YouTube sensation James Wright Chanel, who slayed with a transcendent rendition of “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” The moment he finished he strolled offstage in a goddamn cape, his work not only done but demolished in every way.
My buddy Devin Faraci, one of a handful of fellow journalists brought in to take the stage alongside a whole lot of talented trained musical theater veterans, professional singers, and the Broadway cast of The Color Purple, sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” accompanied by a flawless pianist named Bette, who, we were told, happens to be Bette Midler’s pianist. As you do on a Tuesday morning. I’ve seen him sing Springsteen a thousand times in karaoke bars, and yet hearing it performed onstage with a live piano and committed, full-bodied gusto, it rung out with a vibrant new life of its own and shook the rafters at Carnegie Hall.
Singing in a hallowed cathedral like Carnegie Hall is not, in fact, anything like singing karaoke. There’s no safety in the dark, no shared communal embarrassment of other plebes belting out liquor-fueled pop tunes with abandon, because you’re all in this together and hey, no one ever expects to hear good singing at karaoke. At karaoke, I’m fearless. I will accept all challenges. And I’ve seen incredible things, sharing in the unabashed humanity of strangers singing terribly, and sometimes wonderfully, together.
Walking onstage at Carnegie Hall I suddenly felt something else: the presence of ghosts. The ghosts of performances past, performances by every amazing musician who came before me and had a singular moment of their own on that stage. I panicked. I forgot all the words to my song. I didn’t know where to look, what to do, how to stand. Performing to an empty room is almost worse than singing to strangers, I think, because there’s no one to sing to. No reassuring other humans who recognize the potential indignity you’ve chosen to subject yourself to and shout sympathetic encouragements from across the room. No damn words. How the hell does anyone do this without the lyrics scrolling in front of their eyes as a midi track plays?
But then Bette started playing those first opening notes, and I got out the first line to a song that I love, a song that’s been ringing in my head constantly of late, and somehow the next line followed. It swept me away in the moment—only me, the music, and those empty seats. It felt magical, even if the video capturing those few minutes of my life might show something more akin to a deer in headlights clinging desperately to every note for dear life. (Don’t worry, I’m not quitting my day job). What matters is that when I was done, I felt changed. I floated offstage, high off the adrenaline. I felt like I could do anything. I still feel like I can.
According to Florence Foster Jenkins’s chirpily inspirational tagline, “Every voice deserves to be heard.” That can sound a bit saccharine for the story of a woman who died of syphilis and ridicule and weathered her share of tribulations cutting through the cheer. No need to take that catchphrase literally—especially if you’ve actually heard Jenkins’s legendarily awful recordings, which helped her live on as a lasting cult figure in popular music for decades after her death.
But what I’ve learned from Jenkins’s story and by tracing her steps onto that stage at Carnegie Hall, is that there’s nothing more human or heartening than setting aside your fears and doubts in pursuit of something extraordinary. If that sounds a bit Pollyanna, maybe it is. But listen to Jenkins screech her way through a little Die Fledermaus and try to hear the real beauty in her off-key warble. It’s a voice filled with love for the music, endless optimism, and, perhaps most importantly, zero fucks to give—just the kind of role model we need more and more in this cynical, fearful, schadenfreude-laden world.
Plus, in a way, Jenkins gave me another gift: I will never be the worst singer to sing at Carnegie Hall.