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On lip-synching the National Anthem

January 22, 2013

Many complaints have arisen about Beyoncé’s apparent lip-synching of the National Anthem at Obama’s second inauguration

I have to agree with the critics here – given the choice between hearing the National Anthem sung live (but poorly) and having an outstanding recorded performance, I would prefer to see the live performance.  For a formal ceremony such as an inauguration, seeing a live performance seems to be appropriate.

I am reminded of so many things here – of a biography I read long ago of Pierre Boulez (I believe it was Joan Peyser’s), which described how he once received a gift of a phonograph, and ended up discarding it, because he could not stand hearing a piece of music played the same way time after time.  I am reminded of the difference between attending a museum exhibit and reading a catalogue or of the pleasures of reading a facsimile edition of a great book.  I am reminded of the recent filmed production of the Boublil-Schönberg Les Misérables which has as its “hook” the idea that it recorded voices live (although orchestra was added in post-production) rather than using lip-synching as do most musical films.  (What is better:  a recording of a live performance or a recording of a recorded performance?)

When I speak in public, I usually prefer not to use a microphone, and I sometimes use the old saw that speaking through a microphone is like kissing through a screen door.  There is nothing that can compare with the immediacy of direct speech.  But to take that example more seriously – what would one prefer:  an imperfect real kiss or a perfect pre-recorded video of a kiss?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dana Ames permalink
    January 23, 2013 9:43 pm

    Long-time musician/singer here.

    There are so many things that can go wrong in that setting. It’s not so much that the artist requires a “perfect” performance (although of course some do), but that even with much preparation, voices, instruments and sound systems can be adversely affected by the cold weather, and glitches you don’t want to happen, happen. It’s like when there’s a dance performance by singers: Those singers can’t possibly catch enough breath while dancing to sing smoothly. Pre-recorded. Super Bowl half-times: Pre-recorded. Any really “big” production, as in awards shows: the more people involved, the more likely it is to be pre-recorded.

    It doesn’t bother me, as long as the recorded performance that was played was Beyonce herself. Ma, Perlman, Montero and McGill did not perform live 4 years ago, but the recording that was played was made by those musicians. I think that’s fine.


  2. January 28, 2013 1:58 pm

    Dana, thanks so much for your insightful comments. I did also think of the Ma et al quartet at the first inauguration, but it seems to me that falls into a different category — first because it was difficult to mike the musicians up on the roof with a strong wind, but also because the John Williams piece they played did not have special resonance.

    In contrast, to my mind, singing the National Anthem is a performative act — almost the secular equivalent to singing a hymn. I’ve attended some naturalization ceremonies, and it is a very moving moment when the new citizens sing the National Anthem, even though musically their performance leaves something to be desired.

    I might feel differently if this were merely a ball game, but the inauguration is the closest thing America has to a coronation ceremony, and it is mentioned in the Constitution. It seems jarring to me that in this case lip-synching was used; even if it is common practice in other situations.


    Do your remarks about pre-recording pieces apply to broadcasts of classical concerts? For example, I thought that the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts were supposed to be live performances.

  3. January 29, 2013 7:32 am

    Couldn’t we do well to compare/contrast Kelly Clarkson’s singing “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” at the same event? The song is legendary itself, serving as the national anthem for decades, and cited by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I had a dream” speech (and this was MLK Jr. Day), and sung at the previous Obama inauguration by Aretha Franklin. How could Clarkson have lipsynced, then, without more criticism than Beyonce has received? Is anybody (the newsmedia and socia media outlets) talking on and on about how great Clarkson did because she sang live? Why not?

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