Beyoncé has admitted to miming her part in President Obama’s inauguration last month – but does that mean it was all a lie?
The Star-Spangled Banner, of course, sounded as emphatic as ever coming from the lips of one of the most successful recording artists of all time but it was, actually, all pre-recorded. Instead of singing ‘live’, she was, in fact, just singing ‘along’. And it appears we have a problem with that.
The New York Times’ YouTube upload of her performance currently has its comments function disabled and, at the time of writing, has garnered close to 2,000 'dislike’s'. This is, at best, a cautionary measure, but certainly not one that is being taken because of the quality of the performance in question. There’s no debating that Beyoncé’s delivery is assured, impassioned and, perhaps most importantly, in tune, yet we don’t seem to be such big fans of it anymore when we know it was made earlier. Understandably, there has been a sort of backlash from her fans, most of which plays into either disbelief, confusion or, rather scathingly, hypocrisy. But, the simple fact remains – it was her voice.
What may, or may not, come as a surprise to sceptics is that this is not the first time an inauguration has been mimed at. More to the point, this is not the first time an Obama inauguration has been mimed at. In 2009, the classical musicians Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriella Montero and Andy McGill did exactly the same. They played along, albeit without amplification, to a pre-recorded version of John Williams’ Air and Simple Gifts. Carole Florman, spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, came to their defence. Speaking to The New York Times, she admitted; “No-one's trying to fool anybody. It's not something we would announce, but it's not something we would try to hide." The problem lies in the fact that the audience only finds out afterwards.
But many organisers, and performers, have good reason for choosing not to perform live. In the case of the inaugurations, it was primarily as a result of the status and importance of the occasion that recordings were relied upon. Beyoncé, herself, has said that her primary motivation behind using the pre-recorded track was that she is a ‘perfectionist’. She then added that, as a result of limited rehearsal time, singing live was not a ‘risk’ she felt comfortable in taking. Similarly, in 2009 it was said that it was the weather which posed a threat to the musicians’ instruments. As Yo-Yo Ma remarked, superbly candidly, “A broken string was not an option. It was wicked cold.” The point to make is that the performers, and their organisers, are highly risk-averse in events such as these. It’s not that it will go wrong – it’s that it could, very easily.
Of course, it seems that much worse when a musician is in fact using a backing track in the first place and yet still manages to go wrong. This is what happened to Rihanna in one sonically hair-raising moment on the London leg of her 777 tour late last year. An almost psychedelic false-start in which the band, her voice and her backing track were half a bar out of sync for the better part of a minute was, naturally, edited out of later re-airings of the full performance. Then there was Ashlee Simpson (younger sister of sometime pop-star Jessica Simpson) and her frankly confusing SNL fluff-up where she walked off stage after her voice started coming out of nowhere. But backing tracks do have their upsides and, when used correctly, are almost imperceptible – as Beyoncé has proven. Following their Brian Eno-produced Viva La Vida album, Coldplay took it on tour only to realise that it just didn’t sound quite the same live. They soon resorted to playing over their own album tracks, using the studio magic to flesh out their live sound.
If Beyoncé wants to sing along, let her. After all, we’d much prefer it to be in tune.