*So Beyonce might have lip synced—or something akin to it—when performing the National Anthem during President Obama’s second-term inaugural. Big deal. As it’s been said–by the very people who talk about it–there are a lot more important things going on in the country.
But let’s say we’re not debating the economy, global warming, gun control or the ever mounting corroboration that Chris Brown is not doing the work. Then, whether or not Beyonce’s White House performance was exactly what it seemed, does matter.
Why? Because she’s Beyonce. Whether or not you like her music, hers is a tremendous talent. She sings, she dances. Live. That isn’t easy to do well, which is why not many people do it anymore.
Beyonce is what the fabled Old School refers to as a “show stopper,” a full-service entertainer with Revue in her blood and an onstage penchant for taking no prisoners. Talent and tireless, single-minded ambition produced a celebrated career that has set the standard for her generation of pop stars.
Performing The Star Spangled Banner didn’t require Beyonce to shake a tail feather, suspend by wires from the rafters or navigate her way through funky, pinpoint choreography while hitting key vocal notes, all of which she’s routinely done during her performances. The inaugural called for her to simply stand and sing.
Of course, “simply” is a trivialization. There is nothing emotionally or physically simple about standing before the President of the United States, hundreds of thousands on the National Mall and millions more viewing on television around the globe, and doing your thing. But that’s what’s supposed make her Beyonce. If she didn’t sing live and unassisted, she should have. Transparency is what both the moment and Beyonce’s already brilliant career deserved.
Lip-syncing is not inherently evil (for the record, Beyonce didn’t lip-sync but reportedly sang live along with a prerecorded track of her voice). One of television’s greatest moments in pop music history, Michael Jackson’s “Motown 25th Billie Jean” performance, was lip-synced. Employed since the prevalence of film and television, lip-syncing is done in the name of production budgets, convenience and production quality. There is a place for lip-syncing. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with lip-syncing during halftime at the Superbowl. The halftime show is merely a confection, more about spectacle than vocal or creative dexterity.
But there shouldn’t be lip-syncing at a President’s inaugural ceremony. There just shouldn’t. There’s already enough bullshit on Capitol Hill. Let the vocal on a performance of the National Anthem be real.
Some top pop acts have come forward in defense of a vocal performance that may not have been 100 percent live. “It was cold out.” Indeed, it was. “Difficult to sing in that kind of weather.” You betcha. “There might have been feedback.” Gosh, that’s right…wind and an open mic. “When you can’t completely control the situation, anything could happen.” Absolutely. That’s the nature of the live performance. Anything can happen. That also happens to be its magic. The how’d-they-do-that? The wow factor.
By the way, since when has cold weather been a condition for not singing? Bring a coat. Scarves. And, like Aretha, a hat. These whiners would have passed up performing at Woodstock because rain was in the forecast. The sun at Wattstaxx would have been too hot. Given the chance, they’d have taken the “Live” out of Live Aid.
Many Beyonce fans and bystanders alike, say they don’t care whether she lip-synced or was vocally assisted. “I know she can sing, so it doesn’t matter,” they insist. I understand their position. These are people for whom the art of the live performance means little.
They came up in an era where pop songs were promoted primarily through music videos and now the Net. When they do see live shows, only elements of the presentation are actually “live.” They have a different concept of what “live” is.
To them, being a singer isn’t necessarily connected to singing live or, for that matter, having the ability to truly sing. We are in a Twilight Zone where calling oneself a musician doesn’t always mean they actually play the instrument.
Sadly, this attitude is simply the run-off of our modern culture, a skewed existence where, increasingly, real is but a boring option and fake is seen as reality. Fake food, fake reality TV, people famous for doing nothing, and the idea that celebrity for anyone is only a Youtube posting away. Our breathless strive for mediocrity has created lower expectations in life. But when you tell yourself fifty is the new thirty (trust me, it ain’t), you diminish the joy and wonder of your fifties. When you convince yourself that fake is real, you disrespect the fantastic reality that is you.
I came up in an age when a hit record was, among other things, a tasty ruse to get butts in the seats at the venue. You’d go because you loved their records, and you wanted to hear them perform it live.
And yes, performing live, ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN—the act might change up the arrangement, might break it down and groove awhile, might do a singalong. But even if they didn’t do any of those things and stayed with the record’s original arrangement, you knew you were hearing the song as you’d never heard it before—live—and you marveled at the fact that they possessed the craftsmanship to do it that way. Sometimes, live, an act is lousy. Real life is like that sometimes.
I can imagine where Beyonce was coming from in her reportedly last minute decision not to sing the anthem without a little help. She and her husband, rapper Jay-Z, are friends of the First Family. She didn’t want to let them down; she wanted it to be perfect.
Turns out, even the President flubbed a line of his oath. All it illustrated is that he is human. I would have appreciated Beyonce’s perfectly imperfect Star Spangled Banner. It still would have been great. After all, she’s Beyonce.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].