On Lip Syncing And Musical Authenticity

Like a lot of folks, I watched the music acts perform at the Obama presidential inauguration. The Brooklyn Tabernacle choir, singing “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” sounded fantastic;

American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” sounded smooth and polished;

James Taylor’s “America The Beautiful” was a reassuring presence;

and megastar Beyonce sounded quite amazing on “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Imagine the pressure to nail a song like that on a big occasion with many millions watching and listening?

But in the days after the inauguration, gossip about Beyonce’s performance began emerging until the gossip became confirmed fact: she had lip synced her song! I read several outraged news pieces about this, and all of them shared the belief that lip syncing is a profound kind of sonic deception–a kind of karaoke without the fun factor. No matter that it was cold out (hard on the vocal chords yes, but then neither the choir nor Clarkson nor Taylor had a problem with it) and no matter that Beyonce didn’t have (or make?) time to rehearse–one just should never ever lip sync. Period. To refresh your memory, other earlier cases of lip syncing in popular music that inspired public outrage include the entire career of Milli Vanilli

and Ashley Simpson’s performance on SNL in which her pre-recorded voice jumped the gun and began without the singer faking along to cover its tracks:

To her credit, Beyonce lip synced flawlessly to her own recorded singing and the result was what looked and sounded like a seamless performance. (It fooled me.) But when word got out that hers was fake singing, critics weighed in with discussions about the nature of authentically live musicianship. Writing in The Guardian, Gary Younge explained that performing live is important because it’s the only context where performer and audience can meet in a truly meaningful way:

“the essence of a live performance is the understanding that the audience is experiencing the event in real time and anything can happen. It is that combination of synchronicity, spontaneity and frailty that gives live performances their edge – it’s the one take that matters.”

It seems that there needs to be an element of risk for us to deem a performance the real McCoy. That’s what makes live music so thrilling and the news of Beyonce’s slight of mouth so disappointing.