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Welcome mat: Lip-synching no longer the fallback option

Posted 8:02pm on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013

Did she or didn't she?

That's the question hundreds of Internet pundits have been asking since Beyonce' performance of the national anthem at the presidential inauguration.

It was first reported the next day: Beyonce, like many artists appearing in a live, televised setting watched by many millions, had a pre-recorded vocal "guide track" prepared just in case.

Her decision to use it, and the confirmation by inauguration officials that she indeed wasn't exactly singing live (the affirmations by representatives of the Marine Band, which accompanied the guest performers, were later semi-retracted), set off ripples of outrage across social media, and even prompted stars like Aretha Franklin and Miranda Lambert to weigh in. (The pros' consensus: Who cares?)

The episode provides an unfortunate glimpse into how rarely popular singers actually perform fully live these days -- anyone who has been to a pop concert in an arena the past five to seven years has heard canned vocals at some point -- and revives the debate about "authenticity" with regards to pop music's live presentation.

Part of the uproar stems from the fact that the other two inaugural performers, James Taylor and Fort Worth-born Kelly Clarkson, appeared to sing completely live. The latter, in particular, was audibly nervous -- understandable given the occasion -- but steadily improved over the course of America (My Country, 'Tis of Thee) to end on a rousing, emotionally charged note.

Beyonce, on the other hand, was smooth from her opening moments, sounding much more full than either Taylor or Clarkson. And had she not popped her in-ear monitor out on the line "bombs bursting in air," the public might have never known she was having the music and vocals piped into her ear.

While painting her with the "lip-synching" brush -- a slur conjuring images of disgraced acts like Milli Vanilli -- is a bit much, there's enough confusion to cause her two-and-a-half-minute performance to fall into a muddled gray area.

On Slate.com, singer-songwriter Mike Doughty authored a piece defending Beyonce, saying "that lady was singing live. She sang to a prerecorded track -- a canned band -- and perhaps there was a guide vocal in her earpiece, audible only to her, but that was absolutely a genuine performance."

He goes on, in some detail, about the vagaries of mixing sound in a live setting and the challenges inherent for the singer. It's a fascinating read, and one that deflates a lot of the criticisms leveled at the Houston native (who will go under the microscope again Sunday, when she headlines the Super Bowl halftime show).

This tempest in a teacup also highlights something music critics wrestle with constantly.

When an artist reaches a certain level of musical stardom, it stops being about the voice and starts being about the show. How you sound becomes less important than how you look, and audiences are conditioned to expect a concert that sounds more or less exactly like the recorded product. Madonna's concert last fall, for example, featured extensive use of canned vocals. The singer had canceled a show less than 24 hours before due to "severe laryngitis," and yet was able to re-create her hits from a quarter-century ago without flaw. (To her credit, she did sing a small portion of her two-hour-plus set live.)

The crowd didn't care -- they were too busy singing along -- but the blatant manipulation of paying, adoring fans felt and feels crass. Why bother going to a supposedly live music event if you can get the same experience at home by turning your speakers all the way up?

Beyonce's inaugural hiccup is not that egregious, of course. But more top-tier pop stars should take a good, long look at themselves and ask why they aren't doing what so many other, less high-profile artists are doing: performing, warts and all, without a net.

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