Oh no she didn’t!
It turns out Beyoncé’s pitch-perfect rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the inauguration Monday was so perfect because it was lip-synced. That dramatic yanking of the earpiece? It was all a sham—and some fans (and pundits) feel betrayed.
“Faked It!” blared the Drudge Report, while Vulture asked: “Who Betrayed America More: Lance Armstrong or Beyoncé?” (The “winner,” thankfully, was Armstrong). In a piece headlined “Beyoncé Lip-Synced at the Inauguration and the World is Betrayed,” Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart summed it up best: “Oh my god how could you?”
But not everyone was so outraged. Bill Werde, the editorial director of Billboard, mocked the hurt feelings on Twitter: “OH MY GOD AT THE INAUGURAL BALL BEYONCE LIP-SYNCHED THE NA...shut up. everyone does it. it’s a non-troversy.”
Werde is right. Many large events are pre-recorded and lip-synced, particularly such large-scale events as the Super Bowl and the inauguration.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman gave pre-recorded performances at the 2009 inauguration due to the frigid temperatures, NPR music critic Ann Powers pointed out. “They ended up miming their performance,” she told The Daily Beast. “It’s not the first time.”
Other famous lip-synced performances might surprise you. Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti completely mimed his 2006 appearance at the Turin Olympics.
Indeed, the most famous—and some would say perfect—rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Whitney Houston’s performance at the 1991 Super Bowl, also was pre-recorded and lip-synced. Houston’s version was released again after 9/11 and became a top 10 hit, the first time the anthem had ever entered the charts, and was certified platinum.
At the time of Houston’s mimed performance, the singer caught some flak from the press, but it was nothing compared to the scrutiny Beyoncé faces today, thanks to social media. Beyoncé’s own Instagram of herself holding sheet music during the recording session was an early warning that perhaps everything was not as it seemed. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s now being debated if she also sung live over her own voice.
Perhaps the reason people get so upset about lip-syncing is that they want to believe in a musician’s authenticity. The practice has exposed fake performers such as Milli Vanilli and the dubious talents of people like Ashlee Simpson, who was awkwardly caught lip-syncing off cue on Saturday Night Live.
Some performers, when forced to lip-sync, just outright refuse to participate or, when they do, purposefully mess it up to make a punk rock point. Morrissey staged his version of a protest by singing into flowers instead of a mic on Top of the Pops, and Johnny Lydon of Public Image Limited essentially pouted through a performance on American Bandstand.
The A-word—authenticity—has especially haunted pop musicians. Today, when every singer is autotuned, people want to know that Beyoncé and other artists like her can really pull it off.
“I remember the first few times I saw Destiny’s Child and they used tracks, I really wondered, ‘Can any of them sing?’” said Powers. “Since then, I’ve seen Beyoncé in many contexts, and I feel extremely confident that she can sing. I understand people want the moment to be spontaneous and authentic, [but] imagine yourself in that moment.”
Given the choice, most people would not want to take the chance and mess up such a moment for the president, she said: “If she had delivered a half-hearted ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ it would have taken away from the real news of the day.”
Still, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the ultimate measuring stick of a singer’s abilities. It’s notoriously difficult to sing, and if a performer can hit the highest notes, they get untold amounts of respect.
“It’s a classic test of a singer’s mettle and abilities. There are many famous cases of people butchering it, like Roseanne,” said Powers. “That song holds a special place in the culture—that’s probably one reason why people are upset.”
Lip-syncing in American pop culture is as old as the day is long, but everyone wants to believe that Britney can really hit those notes while bending over backward. And that Beyoncé is really as badass as her alter-ego, Sasha Fierce.
“With performances, it’s always artifice. It’s never a natural moment, any more than we expect Obama’s speech to be memorized or off the cuff,” said Powers. “Why would we be upset? The reason is because of the song itself and the setting. We crave a unique moment, but if we are being realistic, it makes a lot of sense that she did what she did."