I was at Hair We Are on Central getting a trim from Roda when she asked me what I thought of Beyoncé’s acting performance — rather than singing performance — at the Obama Inauguration. By now, it’s well documented that Beyoncé did not sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" live, but decided to lip-sync to a prerecorded version, and she’s drawn a lot of negative comment for it. Interestingly, it was a spokesperson for the Marine Corps band that revealed the truth about this year's — and previous years' — recording.
“We prerecorded all music as a matter of course and have done since time immemorial,” said a spokeswoman for the band as quoted in the Los Angeles Times. The concern was for frigid temperatures that are hard on musical and vocal instruments.
Beyoncé has not said why she chose to use the recorded version instead of singing live, but it was her decision. She’s easily not the first singer to do so, and will certainly not be the last. But did she make the right call?
Beyoncé’s main public job is to protect the brand Beyoncé. She could have done so either way. By lip-syncing to the recording, she makes sure her vocal performance is unaffected by weather and is, therefore, everything the public expects of her. By singing live and accepting whatever limitations the weather inflicts on her, she shows that she’s a trouper, a performer who gives her all for every show, who demonstrates to the world that it was an honor to be chosen to sing for the occasion and comes through no matter what.
The latter choice is a bit old-fashioned, but then so is an inauguration.
Julie Andrews would, I think, generally be considered a trouper. A Broadway, film, concert and television performer since 1945, she became a favorite for so many. Yet for her starring role in the Broadway adaptation of Victor/Victoria, so the story goes, she also had occasion to pre-record a bit of singing.
As in the movie, Victoria proves her vocal ability when she shatters a glass by singing a high E-flat. The note is sung a capella and not as a part of a song. It comes out of nowhere. It’s very hard to hit it dead on eight performances a week. They recorded her singing the note for the Broadway production. If Julie surreptitiously signaled the conductor, he would cue the recorded version. Without a signal, Julie would sing it live.
A couple of years later, Julie Andrews underwent throat surgery for voice problems that developed during the Broadway run of Victor/Victoria. Her singing voice never recovered and we lost the Julie Andrews "brand" we’d always known.
There's not a lot of lip-syncing on Broadway, though these days it's easy to assume otherwise. Recently, I was working at home with some video from Jersey Boys. My wife hadn't seen it before and wondered if the performers were simply lip-syncing to the songs recorded by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I assured her the cast sang the songs live, that theater companies still value live performance.
Certainly the hue and cry over Beyonce’s prerecorded national anthem is understandable, especially now. Everywhere we turn there’s a demand for authenticity, with a corresponding belief that some unbelievable YouTube video has been doctored or some amazing photo has been Photoshopped. Is it too much to ask, then, that our live performers actually sing live?
We might be asking the wrong question, because the tension in Beyonce's choice arises from the often conflicting demands we place on our performers for both authenticity and perfection.
Terry S. Davis