The pre-Super Bowl XLVII suspense is a killer. The bookies have laid down their odds, and sports fans in every home, school, and workplace across America are placing their own bets over the hotly anticipated outcome. Will the winner be... live, or Memorex?
Grammy-winning superstar Beyonce enters the halftime show of this Sunday's game with the eyes and ears of an overly attentive nation upon her. After her initially acclaimed rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the inauguration suddenly turned into Mimegate, the heat is on. She can either deliver the fully live goods, or...she can lip-synch and still be one of the richest, prettiest, most powerful, and most beloved entertainers in America, notwithstanding the further wrath of a million bloggers. The choice is hers.
Good luck, anyway, finding anyone at this point who'll bet more than a buck on Beyonce's mic being in the off position. Whether the controversy has become overwrought or not, she's surely got too much pride in her own chops to subject herself to that kind of ridicule for the second time in a month. It's unlikely she'd deliberately muff a note to prove that she's not in automaton mode. But don't put it past her to do some panting just to let us know her licks are coming off the 50-yard-line and not a laptop.
If she does choose to either mime to or sing along with her own pre-recorded vocals, she'll be in estimable company. The trickery is sophisticated enough these days that even seasoned professionals sometimes debate how much of a performance was canned and how much for real. But the consensus is that Madonna did a lot of lip-synching at last year's Super Bowl halftime show, like most of the superstars who've preceded her in that slot. Janet Jackson's half-bared chest was pretty much the only organic thing about her performance.
It's not just a "pop" thing. Even the Who's Roger Daltrey was accused of using a pre-recording when suspicious fans replayed the tape to demonstrate that the "pray" part of the line "Get on your knees and pray" appeared on the video track before his lips ever moved. And the Who wasn't the only Cred Act to do the halftime show and be accused of nefarious doings. Bruce Springsteen sang (and crotch-dived into the camera) live, it seemed safe to say; the rest of the E Street Band, not so much so, although there seemed to be live instrumental moments amid the canned tracks.
There's a damned-if-you-do, darned-if-you-don't aspect to all this. Shania Twain and—just two years ago—the Black Eyed Peas represent two examples of what can happen when a halftime act opts to sing live and suffers slings and arrows after a performance that's perceived as sub-par.
The inevitable perception whenever a lip-synch controversy arises is that the act in question just can't cut it in the glare of the spotlight—a belief born out by dance-pop specialists like Chris Brown and Britney Spears who almost never let dangerous live air trickle into their prop-like microphones.
But what's Yo-Yo Ma's excuse? Or Itzhak Perlman's? These two virtuosos were confirmed to have cello-synched and violin-synched during the 2009 inauguration ceremony. Of course, they did have an excuse: "It was wicked cold," Ma told the New York Times. Perlman weighed in: “It would have been a disaster if we had done it any other way. This occasion’s got to be perfect. You can’t have any slip-ups.”
That's the musical equivalent of a doctor's note to excuse performers who choose to wax it ahead of time rather than wing it during the inauguration and the Super Bowl—the two most visible examples of live singing for tens of millions of people in outdoor settings, both of which happen to take place at the coldest time of year.
This would create mass torrents of sympathy and forgiveness for Beyonce's perceived transgressions if not for the fact that Kelly Clarkson undeniably did nail "My Country 'Tis Of Thee" live at the inauguration. And James Taylor also did without a pre-recording, although his song admittedly required a bit less January lung power. If Kelly is not Beyonce's sworn enemy after being popularly seen as the Gallant to Bey's Goofus, it can only be because Mrs. Z-Knowles really is as beatific as her glowing visage suggests.
Let's note that the evidence is not completely in on just what Beyonce did or didn't do during the inauguration. Inauguration and Marine Band spokespeople indicated that she'd chosen to use her pre-recording instead of go live at the last minute, but some studio-musician experts put up blogs with clues that Beyonce had sung live, even as the woman herself declined to comment. Indie-rocker Mike Doughty wrote a much-forwarded essay saying he was utterly convinced she'd been live, although his main evidence seemed to be that he'd been a lousy lip-syncher himself when he was making videos back in the day.
Veteran recording engineer Ian Shepherd wrote another blog making the case for Beyonce being at least partly live, making a strong case that she was singing along with the vocal track she'd been in the studio recording as a backup, and that different mixes that went out emphasized either the live or studio vocal to varying degrees. He made compelling points, although we aren't about to see Beyonce come out with a "I was only partly faking it" mea culpa.
At least Whitey Houston survived the scandal that ensued when she was revealed to have mimed the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991. Or did she? Maybe that backlash marked the beginning of her tragic arc. We're being half-facetious here, but there's a lesson for Beyonce anyway, and one she's surely smart enough to have already figured out for herself: Better to croak like a frog this Sunday than leave the nation wondering whether she's not just destiny's child but a child of the recording studio.
She's too good to leave anyone in doubt, even if Jack Frost is nipping at her nodules.