In Lip-Sync They Trust; Should We?

Beyoncé is not the first - or last - singer to give her vocals a little prerecorded boost. So why are we so surprised?

By Colin Bertram
|  Wednesday, Jan 23, 2013  |  Updated 6:15 AM CDT
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Pop star Beyonce performs the National Anthem at President Barack Obama's second inauguration. After the performance, there have been questions about <a href=whether the singer lip-synced. " />

NBC

Pop star Beyonce performs the National Anthem at President Barack Obama's second inauguration. After the performance, there have been questions about whether the singer lip-synced.

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Now that it's public knowledge Beyoncé's much-lauded inaugural performance of "The Star Spangled Banner" was pre-recorded, it raises a few questions: Depending on the occasion, is an audience actually better served by a performer working with a pre-recorded track? Why risk going off key or battling the elements when the occasion is as important as the presidential Inauguration? And should we actually be surprised that it happens at all anymore?

"I'm more surprised at the surprise," said Monica Herrera, senior editor at RollingStone.com. "We of course tend to go through the same cycle of shock when something like this happens. This does happen a lot. Lip-syncing is definitely a common thing and is not necessarily a sign of in-authenticity, which it is often read as."

While the buzz was high Tuesday, history certainly has precedent.

"It's very typical for a momentous occasion or an event of some import for the artist who is headlining to prerecord their performance," adds Herrera. "Whitney Houston most famously prerecorded her performance of the national anthem at the Super Bowl [in 1991] which people point to as one of the greatest performances of that song of all time."

It's unclear how much Beyoncé relied on a backing track. Marine Corps Band Director Col. Colburn told NBC News that the band "created a visual simulation of playing" along with Beyoncé. He said that she had been getting ready for her Super Bowl performance and had no time to practice with the band. But whether or not she lip-synced, he couldn't say. Beyoncé has yet to comment on the reports.

She's not the first Grammy winner to perform to tape at an Obama inauguration. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma used a backing track in 2009. "You can't play cellos in 25 degrees," Master Sgt. Kristin DuBois, public affairs chief for the United States Marine Band, told NBC News. "Sometimes you just need to do it. Beyoncé is a gifted singer and her decision has no bearing on her musical ability."

The caliber of Beyoncé's performance, like that of Houston, makes it all the more bitter a pill to swallow. "A lot of people are pointing to the fact that Kelly Clarkson didn't lip-sync, but nobody was really talking about her performance yesterday like they were about Beyoncé's," says Herrera. "It was a great performance but it wasn't as memorable or perfect as Beyoncé's."

While the lip-synced inauguration performance certainly fueled a media and social networking storm, it didn't have the public embarrassment factor of Milli Vanilli's MTV performance or Ashlee Simpson's cringe-worthy turn on "SNL."

In contrast, Herrera believes the surprise and shock can be attributed to Beyoncé's history of great live appearances: "She is probably one of our most technically gifted singers and a 100% pop star. I think there is a hope and expectation that she will always sing live. But any artist will have to lip-sync at some point especially if it is cold and a Monday morning. It's just the reality of the human voice."

As a practice, lip-syncing long predates rock 'n' roll. Over 80 years ago producers of films such as "The Wizard of Oz" realized the benefit in prerecording artists like Judy Garland so when filming began they could concentrate on acting and movement rather than singing on key.

Fast forward to the 21st century and many believe the roots of the now famous and ongoing Elton John/Madonna feud lie in his unhappiness with her being nominated to the best live act category at the British Q Awards in 2004. That same year he reportedly called her out for employing the practice during her "Re-Invention" tour, saying: "Anyone who lip-sings in public on stage when you pay $134 to see them should be shot."

As with entertainers like Madonna who employ difficult choreography, lip-syncing allows for a bigger and more dazzling spectacle. Especially in a media-obsessed culture where image and presentation are of huge importance and artists know that their performances are going to be dissected the next day or even moments later in a way that previously never occured.

What this latest lip-syncing hoopla has done is to focus even more attention on Beyoncé's upcoming halftime gig during the Super Bowl on Feb. 3.

"Maybe she will take a shot at performing totally live or recording more live sounding tracks, which is a very common practice right now," says Herrera. "But it definitely puts the pressure on and it will be interesting to see if she responds to the criticism."

In the long term, Herrera doesn't believe it will affect the singer's image. "Behind the scenes it's a very common practice, but it is something that is difficult for an artist to explain to their fans. So I'm not really sure how she will get around that. But it will die down."

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