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Linda Ronstadt Can’t Sing Aloud Anymore, So She Sings in Her Head

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credit: Michael Kovac/ NARAS/ Getty Images/ Cropped
Photo Credit: Michael Kovac/ NARAS/ Getty Images/ Cropped

American singer Linda Ronstadt is famous not just for her astounding voice and range, but for the ease with which she navigated through different musical genres. She performed country, opera, Latin, and, most famously, rock music throughout her career. Yet by 2011, Ronstadt’s career came to an end after health difficulties left her unable to sing.

An incredible career

Given the name “The First Lady of Rock,” Ronstadt has undeniably had an amazing career. She began singing professionally in the mid-1960s as part of a folk rock band, before moving on to start a career as a solo artist. It was her first solo album, Hand Sown…Home Grown, that was Ronstadt’s first foray into the world of country-rock music. Although she began touring with other musicians after this, it wasn’t until she produced a few more albums that her rock music really took off.

Young Linda Ronstadt with short dark hair in profile while singing into a microphone.

Linda Ronstadt performs in concert at the Forum in Inglewood, California, May 5, 1980. (Photo Credit: Gary Friedman/ Los Angeles Times/ Getty Images)

Always continuing to broaden the scope of her music, Ronstadt agreed to perform in the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance in the ’80s. This earned her a Tony nomination and solidified her popularity as a performer for making such an unexpected move. She continued to produce albums, many of which went multi-platinum. During this period she was also selling out concerts, setting many records as one of the top-grossing performers of her era.

Unknown illness

When she retired in 2011, it wasn’t because she’d lost interest in music. Rather, she’d developed a rare condition that had begun to affect her ability to sing. She told Anderson Cooper that she couldn’t hear the notes at the top of her vocal range: “My throat would clutch up. It would just be like I had a cramp or something.”

Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith in costume, a white gown and collared shirt and vest respectively.

American singer and actor Linda Ronstadt and actor Rex Smith embrace in a promotional portrait for director Wilford Leach’s film, The Pirates of Penzance, based on the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)

She didn’t discuss the condition, initially believed to be Parkinson’s, publicly until 2013. In 2019 she learned she actually had a rarer condition called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) which caused her inability to sing. PSP is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s due to similar symptoms. It’s a brain disorder that impacts an individual’s ability to speak, swallow, see, think, and move due to damaged nerve cells in the brain.

Singing without singing

Despite being unable to sing aloud now due to her illness, Ronstadt has found a new way to continue enjoying music. In an interview with TODAYshe went into detail about how she keeps up with her music: “I can sing in my brain. Sometimes, I choose the song, and sometimes my brain chooses the song.” She admits, however, that when it is the latter making the choice, the options are usually far from enjoyable.

Linda Ronstadt in a black jacket with medal on her neck shakes hands with Barack Obama, also in a suit jacket.

Linda Ronstadt is presented the National Medal of Arts during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, July 28, 2014. (Photo Credit: Mandel Ngan/ AFP/ Getty Images)

“My brain chooses the worst music. It just blares away in my head, like really bad Christmas carols.” Interestingly, the songs that she performs in her head are rarely, if ever, her own songs, but are instead the music of others. Ronstadt envisions the entire performance in her mind, knowing exactly “what [she] would be doing with it,” including the musical accompaniments.

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Linda Ronstadt tries to make the best of the situation, even if she evidently misses being able to sing aloud. She admits that singing in her head just is “not quite the same.” Even if she is unable to sing, the legacy of her music lives on through her many albums, awards, and performances throughout the decades.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.