At the recent inauguration of President Obama, Beyoncé, the one-named pop star, sang the national anthem. But not really. She lip-synched it. This was obvious from the first note, when lips and music were not in sync. Beyoncé and the Marine Band had recorded the anthem. When it was showtime, Beyoncé pretended to sing, the band pretended to play, and the conductor conducted — though there was no need to, except to keep up appearances.
The lip-synching made the news, and some of the more uptight among us murmured. Beyoncé was defensive, even defiant. It was too cold to sing, she said. There hadn’t been a “proper sound check.” And so on. “I did not feel comfortable taking a risk.” Plus, singing along with a “pre-recorded track” is “very common in the music industry.” It certainly is.
A pop singer at an inauguration is a relatively new phenomenon. Traditionally, we have had classical singers: Marian Anderson, Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman, Susan Graham . . . And classical musicians have higher standards than pop musicians, right? They have greater integrity, and a purer sense of art. Right? Well, consider Obama’s first inauguration, in 2009.
On that occasion, Senator Dianne Feinstein announced that the nation would be treated to “a unique musical performance.” It was, actually. A quartet had been assembled: Gabriela Montero, piano; Itzhak Perlman, violin; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; and Anthony McGill, clarinet. (They made a near-perfect modern-American tableau. Diversity committees everywhere must have rejoiced.) The four played a piece by John Williams — but not really. They pretended to play. They had recorded the piece in the Marine Barracks two days before. At the inauguration itself, they “hand-synched.”
They did a lot more than that — they went all out, in this charade. Perlman made his usual faces. (He bites his lip, à la Bill Clinton.) Ma made his usual faces. (Think silent movies.) The musicians pretended to coordinate with one another, as ensembles do. It was a brazen, shameless act.
Later, everyone explained that it was simply too cold to play. The instruments could not have taken it. “It would have been a disaster if we had done it any other way,” said Perlman. “This occasion’s got to be perfect. You can’t have any slip-ups.” Ma said, “A broken string was not an option. It was wicked cold.”
Fair enough. But what would you have done, reader? Would you have gone through the charade, as these guys did? Or would you have said something like the following? “Play the recording, and announce why. Or make some other arrangement. I don’t want to take part in a deception. I don’t want to pretend I’m playing when I’m not.”
The great Pavarotti lip-synched, on more than one occasion. In my opinion, it was the most disgraceful thing he ever did (in his professional life). He committed fraud, basically. In 1992, the BBC demanded its money back, because they had paid for broadcast rights to a live concert, not for lip-synching. And how about people who had bought tickets? If they wanted to listen to Pavarotti recordings, couldn’t they have stayed home and saved themselves the expense?
The most famous instance of operatic lip-synching took place in 1916. It is a beautiful episode. The Metropolitan Opera was performing La bohème in Philadelphia. When it came time for the bass aria, “Vecchia zimarra,” in Act IV, Andrés de Segurola had no voice. He whispered to the tenor onstage with him, “I can’t sing.” The tenor was Enrico Caruso — who said, “Don’t worry. I’ll turn my back to the audience and sing the aria for you. You stand there and mouth along” — which he did.
In 1952, there was an incident that shook a lot of people up. The EMI label made a recording of Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Kirsten Flagstad was the Isolde. But she could not sing the high C’s in Act II, so Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sang them for her. These notes were dubbed in. When the public found out, many were, as I said, shaken up. Scandalized. It was a trick, a fraud, a deception!
If you had been Flagstad — first of all, congratulations — what would you have done? Would you have allowed the notes to be dubbed? “What’s important is that the music sound right,” you might have said. Or would your position have been, “It is a matter of honor, and honesty. If I can’t sing the notes, either I will not record the role, or I will sing some alternative to the high notes [as happens in live performances all the time]. But I won’t let people think I’m singing them when I’m not.”
In 1965, Vladimir Horowitz played a recital at Carnegie Hall — one of the most famous piano recitals ever played. Horowitz was performing in public for the first time in twelve years. The recital was recorded — and when the “live recording” came out, those who had attended the recital were shocked: because the wrong notes were missing. Correct ones had been substituted. The recording was not a faithful representation, was not really live.
Horowitz defended himself passionately. It had been hot in the hall, he said, and he was nervous, and he was sweating. The sweat got in his eyes, blinding him. He missed notes. It was not his fault. It was an “act of God.” That was the line he clung to: “act of God.” He was entitled to correct the notes, he said, because they were not really his fault in the first place. They did not have to do with his ability. And he had to think of posterity — what would future generations think? He was certainly not the type to miss notes, except when God was filling his eyes with sweat.
As the years rolled on, recordings got ever more doctored, ever more sterile, ever more scrubbed. They are, to a degree, unnatural. The critic and scholar Dennis Rooney told me a story about Miriam Fried, the violinist. She was recording the Bach sonatas and partitas, and, after a particular take, someone informed her that she had squeaked. “So?” she said. Violinists squeak. But thereafter, she became self-conscious about these occurrences, and this self-consciousness had an inhibiting effect. Rooney is one who decries the “cosmetic perfection” of modern recordings.
Listen to a recording of Josef Hofmann, or Alfred Cortot! (These are pianists who recorded in a pre-modern age.) You may hear some missed notes, but you will also hear a genuine article. Rare is the pianist who plays note-perfectly. I have heard Mikhail Pletnev play this way, and a handful of others — but not a large handful. In reviewing a concert, I’ll often say, “Virtuosic as he is, he missed a few notes. But that only proved that it wasn’t a studio recording, thank heaven.” There’s nothing like the realism — the wondrous, exciting, human realism — of live.
Let’s return to a more popular world. Hollywood, land of make-believe, made people believe that such stars as Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, and Natalie Wood were singing. Actually, Marni Nixon was singing, for those three. (The “Ghostess with the Mostest,” she was called.) Marilyn Horne sang for Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones. Was this a fraud, a deception? Will I get on my high horse about it? My answer is, it was Hollywood, the movies — and one would not want to take the show business out of show business.
The dawn of MTV, in 1981, must have been important. Everyone lip-synched then. You were supposed to. One of the network’s taglines was, “You’ll never look at music the same way again.” So true. Forget inaugurations, what about an even greater American rite, the Super Bowl? Whitney Houston lip-synched, Jennifer Hudson lip-synched, everyone has lip-synched. In 2009, music director Rickey Minor said, “There’s too many variables to go live. I would never recommend any artist go live, because the slightest glitch would devastate the performance.” What a sad commentary. Doing away with live is like doing away with life. Those “variables” are what makes it great!
Most have accepted the modern way, surely, but there are still murmurs, even the occasional shout. At an awards ceremony in 2004, Elton John ripped into Madonna, who had been nominated in a “live act” category. “Since when has lip-synching been live?” Sir Elton said. “Anyone who lip-synchs in public onstage, when you pay 75 pounds to see them, should be shot.”
I think Beyoncé was sheepish about what she had done at this year’s inauguration. Days later, she went down to New Orleans, to sing (or whatever) at the Super Bowl. At a press conference beforehand, she asked everybody to stand up. Then she sang the national anthem, for real — as though she had something to prove. “Any questions?” she said, with a laugh. She issued no apology for what happened at the inauguration. In fact, she said, “I am very proud of my performance.” (That is very modern-American: to be very proud of oneself.)
But get this: “I will absolutely be singing live” at the Super Bowl. She said it again: “I will absolutely be singing live.” Then she said, “This is what I was born to do, what I was born for.”
What would you have done at the inauguration? Would you have lip-synched, sung live, or what? I don’t think we can lay down hard-and-fast rules on these things. It’s a matter of stomach, conscience, taste — circumstance. But I don’t believe I myself could have pretended to be singing the national anthem, when I wasn’t. Lip-synching isn’t the worst thing in the world. It was not the worst thing at that inauguration. But it is problematic, at a minimum. And if people don’t know you’re doing it — if they don’t expect it, and think otherwise — it’s a lie. An artistic illusion, you might say. But still, a lie, of a kind. A swindle.