Moments after President Obama recited the oath of office Monday, Beyonce floated to the podium on the steps of the Capitol — golden tresses spilling onto her shoulders — to deliver our national anthem. Both acts were largely ceremonial. He had been officially sworn in the day before; she allegedly mouthed along to a recording made Sunday with the U.S. Marine Band.
Now, the president is back at work and the pop star is busy ignoring torrents of criticism. Fans flooded social media with praise for Beyonce’s agile rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Monday, and then replaced it with harrumphs on Tuesday when we all learned she might have been lip-syncing.
If anything, our disappointment shows how confused our culture has become over its wobbly standards of authenticity.
Whether we’re channel surfing or grocery shopping, Americans consistently and zealously demand “real.” But not really. Instagram filters our memories, Cherry Coke Zero involves zero cherries, and the friends we collect on Facebook are rarely people we would invite into our homes. So why draw the line at Beyonce?
Pop music has always been a place where fantasy and reality have ground up against each other to create hot sparks. From artists’ mythologized narratives to the actual transactions taking place up onstage, deception plays a huge role in how we consume this stuff. Was Paul dead? Has Taylor Swift ever used Auto-Tune? Does Bruce Springsteen sing from a teleprompter? Did Rick Ross once work as a correctional officer? Was Whitney Houston’s 1991 gold-standard rendition of the national anthem lip-synced, too? (Answers: No, not sure, yes, yep and uh-huh.)
When it comes to live performance, contemporary pop fans are caught in a riptide. We expect kinetic concert experiences filled with lung-monopolizing choreography. Meanwhile, a dozen seasons of “American Idol” have made us all connoisseurs of acrobatic, soul-inspired pop vocalization. How many times has a “little pitchy, dawg” thought bubble involuntarily bloomed above your head? Too many.
We want it both ways, and we demand that it all be real. To paraphrase author and thinker David Shields, our culture craves reality because we experience so little of it. Social media have scrambled our perceptions of friendship, fellowship, and, thanks to the recent and galactic humiliation of Manti Te’o, courtship. Add that to a century of pop culture built around the principle of suspension of disbelief, and it becomes tricky to be honest about when we’re okay with being deceived.
We blew our whistles at Mike Daisey and James Frey because we laid our money — and secondarily, our trust — down for one thing and were given something else. A pop concert operates on a similar kind of contract, even though the fine print often remains unacknowledged. We all expect Madonna to lip-sync. Yet, somewhat illogically, many of us would be aghast if Adele did it.
Or maybe not. At Adele concerts — or any pop concert — fans are quick to raise handheld phones to capture the performance on video, their eyes locked on a small, glowing screen instead of the three-dimensional humans up onstage. We often prefer not to experience the real thing even when it’s right there in front of us.
Regardless of what happens out on the dance floor, live pop music has always been a compromise between stagecraft and spontaneity. And considering the occasion, our disappointment with Beyonce this week is steeped in our muddled, unflagging desire for the latter.
Because this was a once-in-a-lifetime gig. Hundreds of thousands assembled to cheer history along. An ocean of flags flapped in the January cold. Before finally retreating to the warmth of the Capitol building, Obama paused for a moment to soak the entire scene in.
Beyonce was seeing it, too, right? That’s why it’s reasonable to hope that the images landing on her retinas were influencing the sounds bursting from her throat. It’s what ultimately invests us in a live performance: the idea that our presence plays some kind of role in the outcome.
Instead, the lip-syncing allegations punched a tiny hole in the fantasy of Monday afternoon. They made an uplifting mass gathering feel like hyper-scripted ritual — which, like so many big, beloved, all-together-now pop culture moments, it absolutely was.