Beyonce admits national anthem help, sings it liveContinue reading.
Beyonc’s national anthem: Did she put her sing on it?
It’s a good thing our government isn’t running the nation’s finances into the ground or dragging on an overseas war so we can ask the important questions of our officials in Washington. Namely: Did Beyonc actually sing the national anthem during Monday’s outdoor inauguration ceremony for President Obama or not?
Lip-syncing became an accepted, open secret in the music industry years ago. We’ve all watched hundreds if not thousands of lip-synced performances — on TV, in videos, at live concerts — whether we were aware of it or not. We may watch more: Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker reported this morning that Adele plans to prerecord her “Skyfall” performance for backup at next month’s Oscars.
So why does Beyonc-gate still have legs?
Because it’s every American vocalist’s patriotic duty to deliver a pure, live performance of our national anthem? Hogwash. We didn’t pile on Whitney Houston when she sang what is commonly cited as the best performance ever of our national ditty at the 1991 Super Bowl — all of which was lip-synced, which is why the performance was packaged and ready for its chart-topping single release exactly two weeks later. (One has to wonder if a similar recording of Beyonc’s “Star Spangled Banner” is, right now, being digitally and physically shelved in the wake of this manufactured controversy.) Even Chicago’s own Jennifer Hudson gave the song prerecorded lip service at the 2009 Super Bowl.
I, for one, don’t believe that Beyonc was lip-syncing — at least, not in the way we’re talking about lip-syncing.
Because there’s lip-syncing, and there’s lip-stinking.
As we’ve come to think of it in purely black-and-white terms, lip-syncing is lipstick: a cover-up. The record plays, and the singer flaps his or her gums. The previously manufactured music is the only sound, and the microphone (or at least the singer) is silent.
Let’s call the other action lip-glossing.
Lip-glossing is just that: an enhancement, a bit of extra shine.
Given the previous debacles in which true lip-syncing went horribly wrong — think Ashlee Simpson on “Saturday Night Live,” or the bulk of Milli Vanilli’s short career — a completely silent live singer is a rarity today. Instead, what happens a lot (like, a lot) is the addition of “support vocals” or “vocal assists” into the mix. Here, the singer sings on top of a prerecorded vocal. It’s there (sometimes brought up or down in the mix by an alert and responsive sound engineer) to fall back on while the singer dances, jumps, changes costumes, burps, barfs, whatever.
Or it’s there if needed when you’re singing one of the most difficult pieces of music ever written while outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures for one of the most important and (obviously) scrutinized moments in our democracy.
In the pre-YouTube (thank heavens) stone age, I myself was once an aspiring singer. I’ve performed the national anthem at sporting events and amid other pomp and circumstance. It’s a dreadful gig, for two reasons. First, as mentioned, it’s notoriously, palm-sweatingly difficult. The cursed Mr. Key, narrating by dawn’s early light and thus clearly delirious from lack of sleep, gave his masterpiece a nearly two-octave range. Secondly, as our official patriotic theme, its performance is always a heightened circumstance. Flubbing a word or a note jars spectators from their nationalist trance and marks the miscreant as an obvious enemy of the state.
Of course, since our elected leaders are themselves the purest examples of truth and authenticity, by all means any performance as part of the theater of state must be likewise.
That’s an impossible standard even for Beyonc.
Watching her Monday performance on television — and still glowing from Kelly Clarkson’s jaw-dropping blast through “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” a few minutes earlier (which she performed without any recorded assistance, she says) — I had no immediate thought of lip-syncing. Mainly because I didn’t think it was that great a performance.
The earpiece. Midway through, she pulls out an earpiece. I assumed this was evidence of her professionalism, not lack of it. Sometimes a singer experiences disorientation when receiving support vocals or at least a click-track (metronomic beats used to keep a singer in sync with the musicians). They yank the earpiece and go with their gut, working with the actual sound instead of the virtual sound.
Watch Beyonc’s performance twice: first looking only at her mouth, then again with eyes closed while listening to the vocals. Visually, if she’s lip-syncing without making any sound, she’s amazing. Myself, I hear a second, softer vocal. She’s singing over it, so we mostly hear her live voice, but the support vocal is there.
An unnamed official with the accompanying U.S. Marine Band told CNN yesterday that Beyonc “did not sing live” due to inadequate prep time. “Because she didn’t have time to rehearse with the Marine Band, she decided to use her recording with the Marine Band,” the official said. “It was all Beyonc.”
Another official, though, said on the record to CBS that “no one in the Marine Band is in a position to assess whether it was live or pre-recorded.”
MTV just posted an analysis from a veteran sound engineer saying there’s “no question” Beyonc was actually singing.
Fellow singers have chimed in with various shades of support, from Jennifer Lopez (“All performers do have to do it at some point”) to Aretha Franklin (“She did a beautiful job with the prerecord … next time I’ll probably do the same”).
Beyonc’s fellow Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams defended her, too: “With big crowds and echoes, you know when it’s a big historical moment, you don’t want any room for any mistakes so I can understand why it was done.”
Beyonc’s own relative silence on the matter — other than posting a photo on Instagram showing her holding “Star Spangled Banner” sheet music inside a recording studio — doesn’t support my view, of course. Maybe she’s waiting for it to blow over. Maybe she feels above this silliness. Maybe it wasn’t actually her singing but one of Manti Te’o's girlfriends.
Or perhaps she’s too busy rehearsing for her next globally scrutinized performance: Feb. 3 at Super Bowl XLVII.
I’m with singer-songwriter Mike Doughty, who wrote an excellent analysis of the process on Slate and said: “I’m hoping for a flurry of retractions.”