(Sigh) It’s happening again. Another popular vocalist stirring up controversy for lip syncing. This time at the Presidential Inauguration.
So reportedly, during Beyoncé’s moving rendition of the National Anthem—her first public vocal performance since giving birth to Blue Ivy—she wasn’t really singing. Or maybe she was, only the mic wasn’t on. I don’t always know how these things work. But whatever it was—what we heard coming over the speakers might not have been what she was actually singing.
Actually, it’s still sort of a did-she-really? sort of thing. An unidentified representative from the Marine Band admitted that she wasn’t singing live, then the Marine Band itself backed away from that statement. A few other sources have indicated that there were concerns that the cold outdoor temperatures might have caused Beyonce to hit a sour note, so they pre-recorded the track. But no one on the official side of things is admitting anything.
Every time this happens, the media sort of goes nuts about it, and the public, too. Maybe we feel a little cheated or duped. Maybe we feel it’s a sell-out on the part of the artist, or an ego trip, because the artist wants to be viewed as perfect. In most cases, it just causes a stir; in more extreme cases, artists have lost their Grammy Awards over this sort of thing. And I think we feel particularly incensed when we feel the person doing the lip syncing didn’t really need to do so. (Beyonce’s got an amazing voice—why would she ever be afraid of singing live?)
So why do artists do it? And why do we get mad when we catch them at it?
And should we even care?
To play devil’s advocate for a moment, there are times and situations when lip syncing or other pre-recording may be virtually unavoidable. Just last week here on MIMO, our Jonathan Trask posted an interview with an audio engineer who talked about pre-recording tracks for the VMA Awards for Natasha Bedingfield. In this case, apparently Natasha did sing live, but the band was playing over pre-recorded tracks. The engineer explained that in live broadcast situations there simply isn’t time to hook up and sound-check for a long line-up of different bands with different needs. While this doesn’t address the lip syncing issue particularly, it certainly demonstrates how there could be situations when lip syncing is the only viable option to help the show go on. (And when a band member fakes playing an instrument, isn’t that the same as a vocalist lip syncing?)
On the other side of the coin, there have been instances in which an artist has been shown to lip sync consistently during live performances. The excuse usually given is that the show’s producers want everything to sound like it does on the record, or maybe the high level of dancing onstage would prevent the artist from keeping up vocally. What this often means is that the artist doesn’t really have enough natural talent to keep up appearances without having his/her vocals doctored up by the recording studios, and if we really knew what that person sounded like live, we wouldn’t bother spending money on the concert ticket. You can form your own opinion about this, but I personally think that if a person can’t carry off any performance without lip syncing, that’s presents a degree of fraud, and I think the public has every right to be offended about that.
But then what about the times when it’s just a matter of ego? If it’s true that the musical director and/or Beyoncé decided to go with a pre-recorded track at the Inauguration for fear of giving a sub-par vocal performance…why was that such a big deal?
Here’s my take on it: as both a musician and a music lover, I actually place a level of value on imperfections, because they make us sound real and human. I would have rather heard Beyoncé hit a sour note if she was going to hit one. To me, this instance makes a huge statement, not about Beyoncé’s legitimacy as an artist or her honesty, but about the intense pressure popular culture places upon its celebrities to be more than human. If Beyoncé did lip sync at the President’s Inauguration, it was most likely because she and her handlers felt they could not afford to show weakness or imperfection of any kind. And I think that’s sad, because it sets up a standard that no human being, no matter how talented, will ever be able to reach without “faking” it at some point. I can’t help but wonder if at some point we should just go back to letting celebrities and famous musicians be human again. We might hear a few more stray notes here and there, but it would be a lot healthier in the long run for everyone involved.
So what do you think? Are there instances when lip syncing is legitimate? Feel free to weigh in.