Earlier this month they had the second Inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama. Actually they officially swore him in the day before in a less regal indoor ceremony in order to fulfill the obligations as writ in the constitution, but a day later they did it again with all the pomp and circumstance of a Superbowl. They even had celebrities sing like James Taylor and Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce.
James Taylor performed America the Beautiful. He was obviously freezing. He’s admittedly got a little mileage on his chassis. I mean the man’s been performing on stages at least as long as I’ve been alive. He was out of tune, sang off key, his breath control was totally out of whack, he couldn’t seem to strum properly cuz his fingers were probably icicles up there, but he had a smile as bright as the day was long, and cuz I love him and I love that song and ..it was one of the sweetest little things I’ve ever seen him do. It was genuine and real and he was in the moment. I’m a skeptic by nature and I’m not exactly enamored of Obama’s performance in his first term, but in Taylor’s performance I could feel the optimism and promise and hope for the next four years that some more idealistic types might be feeling. It wasn’t perfect, but James Taylor was himself up there and that’s all anyone wants from James Taylor. That’s what he advertises and that’s what you get. He’s always been a very straightforward and honest performer. What you see is what you get.
Kelly Clarkson sang My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. Now, I don’t know if this is the order they actually performed, but I’m showing you the order in which I heard them after the fact later that same day. Clarkson walked up there all starry-eyed, and whether it’s all an act or not, she seems just as eager and forthright and girl-next-door as she was many years ago when she won the first American idol contest. It’s probably an act, but I can’t know that for sure. If she’s not as honest and sincere as James Taylor has been throughout his career, Kelly Clarkson’s very good at pretending, and she’s also not afraid to make mistakes and be artistically naked up on stage when performing live. In the above video you will see an imperfect performance. Perhaps not as fumbled as James Taylor’s, but there are points where the band plays over Kelly’s voice, and she makes some little vocal mistakes here and there. Nothing that most of us would catch the first go around, but she was probably embarrassed after the fact, and might have kicked herself a bit or chastised herself in hindsight. You know how we all are. She is probably her own worst critic and amplifies all the mistakes in her mind while dismissing the precious moments where she shines like a star up there.
What I’m pointing out here is that both Clarkson and Taylor gave human performances that day. They weren’t pitch perfect. They weren’t spectacular. Perhaps that’s what some people demand from ceremonies like this. They don’t want to see humanity as it is, they want to dress up humanity into something they wish it was. For me, Taylor and Clarkson displayed humanity as it’s most real. For better or for worse, this is who we are, and I think it’s wonderful, but then, I don’t prize inhuman perfection as much as I do wholesome sincerity (or the illusion of same, if you’re more pessimistic than me).
Then Beyonce ‘sings’ the National Anthem.
In case you haven’t already heard the story, I’ll give the cliff notes version. All of these artists had back up tracks that they could have asked to use. These tracks were recorded ahead of time and it’s presumed no one (besides me perhaps) would have thought any less of them if they used it. At their request, the prerecorded audio performance could be played, and the artist would only have to lip sync live and theoretically no one would be the wiser, except for assholes like me that look for this kind of stuff. Now again, all three artists could have done this. Taylor and Clarkson opted not to, but at the last moment, Beyonce herself has admitted to requesting the prerecorded track.
Soon after the inaugural was over, rumors began to spread that Beyonce didn’t actually sing the National Anthem. She dubbed it. She has since admitted that she did use the backup, but that she was also singing sincerely live even though that’s not what we heard at home. What we heard was a studio recording. What we saw was her allegedly performing live, but only people up on that dias could hear her actual live performance. The rest of us only got Memorex.
Now, the reaction to this has been mixed. Most people don’t care either way. This is the 21st century and artists like Beyonce use canned recordings all the time. When you do a dance number live during a concert you’re not expected to be able to sing perfectly while you dance. The human body can only do so much. So today’s audiences are used to a little canned recording. I’m not modern audience. I’m an old fuddy duddy. If I’m gonna get a canned performance when I pay money to see someone live, I’d just as soon stay home and listen to the album again. I see no significant difference.
Some critics have chastised Beyonce for going to tape on such an auspicious occasion. Her excuse was she hadn’t had time to properly practice, but that’s bullshit. It’s not like the Inauguration snuck up on her. She didn’t get the gig at the last moment. What is more plausible is that she realized how cold it was, that her peer performers were not faring very well up there and at the last minute she chose to do what she thought was best, give a canned performance that would wow the uninitiated.
She has since had a press conference regarding the Superbowl, and during that press conference she sings Oh Say Can You See without any music accompaniment. It’s clear she can sing this song. No tape. It’s live. She does it incredibly well. Afterwards she asks with a laugh “any questions?” She probably feels this should end the controversy, and it probably will. It’s clear she can sing this song. She has nothing to prove to anybody.
She doesn’t seem to get it though, and I think many artists today, as well as a vast majority of the audience just doesn’t get it. I think the entire entertainment industry totally fails to grasp what has happened to live performances over the past century or so.
There are times when a canned performance is enough. Maybe you don’t feel well that day. Maybe the audience would rather see you dance than hear you sing. Maybe it’s bad acoustics or you’re not comfortable with the band director or a thousand other reasons or excuses or legitimate concerns. What’s the use of modern technology if we can’t use it to tweak things here and there and make seemingly impromptu moments better than they really are? However, those bells and whistles can be a crutch and they can be a crushing blow to the true magic of a theatrical performance.
There is a distinct difference between lip synching to a pre recorded performance that’s flawless and performing live with all those thousands of excuses hanging over your head and yet still you shine above them and smile and give your all and to hell with imperfection. It’s the possible mistakes and flying without a net that makes a live performance so much more genuine and worthy of people’s attention. Even if you get away with faking it, the end result is still hollow and empty.
It’s not that anyone thinks she can’t perform live. We all know she can. She’s not Milli Vanilli. We get that. The problem is she didn’t. She can. She has in the past. She will again. This was the inaugural, and she didn’t.
The problem is that when she really needs to do so, like when the president of the United States asks her to bring herself to the White House and not a music video of her in her place, Beyonce can’t always be willing to show a more vulnerable side to herself, and be honest with her audience. Even in the press conference above, it’s obvious she has been practicing and every syllable is carefully planned. It’s a well sculpted illusion of live, but she never wants us to see her sweat.
I’ve been a fan of Taylor all my life. I’ve been a fan of Clarkson for years. I have wanted to be a fan of Beyonce’s, but I can’t, and I haven’t really been able to put my finger on why until now. It’s cuz I don’t think I’ve ever seen her perform without a net. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the real her. She’s a beauty pageant contestant. She can be and has been a soulful singer. She will be for the Superbowl, now that billions of eyes are trained on her, it’s doubtful she’ll turn to a canned recording that day. Hopefully she has learned her lesson.
You can disagree with me all you want. I’m sure you’ve experienced her either live or on tape and you walked away with a different opinion. That somehow she’s still soulful and vulnerable and daring despite the bells and whistles and tech wizard tricks and the scores of people who do her hair and makeup and wardrobe and prepare her meals and produce her life and makes sure everything is perfect in her fishbowl of an existence so she can hit her mark and sing for the suppers of everyone in her entourage.
And maybe Taylor and Clarkson each have entourages the rival that of Beyonce’s. Maybe they’re just better at faking being talented singers than Beyonce is. I could be totally wrong and they’re all fakers. That’s not what I see with the available evidence.
I have Beyonce’s performance at the 2013 Inaugural as evidence that as human as she can appear to be, she’s afraid to let us see her blemishes. She never lets us see her sweat, metaphorically speaking, and I can’t in all honesty see her as a true artist until she loosens up a little and lets herself be a little more imperfect now and then. Sometimes you gotta fall so you can REALLY fly.
But then, I’d also prefer Lady Gaga go by Stefani Germanotta and sit behind a piano wearing jeans and a t-shirt. So I’m SO not who these ladies are trying to impress.