Last week, Beyoncé Knowles’ did-she-or-didn’t-she-lip-sync-the-National-Anthem debacle overtook the Internet. Every couple of hours, another conflicting story would be published, and it was up to you to decide which version of the truth you preferred. The endless coverage seemed to be little more than another step in the media’s dedication to Really Important News – did you know that Michelle Obama has bangs now? Well, she does! – but the huge emotional investment each side took was strange.
Why was it so important whether or not Beyoncé actually sang the National Anthem at Obama’s inauguration? Perhaps lip-syncing for such an important occasion is inappropriate. Perhaps lip-syncing such an important hymn is disrespectful (though supporters of Beyoncé pointed out that Whitney Houston’s iconic performance at the 1991 Super Bowl was pre-recorded). Most of the discussion, however, centered on how this scandal would reflect on Beyoncé’s artistry. A transgression as severe as lip-syncing could undermine everything she has achieved so far. That may be an extreme prediction — at the end of the day, she is still Beyoncé — but her authenticity was called into question.
This isn’t the first time lip-syncing has been a national controversy. Recall the Ashlee Simpson fiasco of 2004, when the fledgling artist stepped onto the “Saturday Night Live” stage to perform as musical guest, only to have a pre-recorded vocal begin playing while the mic was at her waist. Simpson became a pariah, lampooned tirelessly for her acid reflux excuses and wacky hoedown. She performed two months later at the Orange Bowl and received a chorus of damning boos. Ever persistent, Simpson continued to produce music, but the incident remains a scourge on her career.
The difference between these two singers’ artistic worth is irrelevant — in both cases, the issue of authenticity is at stake. Time and again, the concept of authenticity enters into pop criticism — at its core, those artists who are “authentic,” i.e. show investment in their craft, write their own songs and have at least one noticeable talent, are more valuable than those who don’t. While these qualities are certainly admirable in artists of any medium, a tension arises when this standard is grafted onto pop music. Beyoncé’s voice is arguably her most important feature — she is gifted with a warm timbre and a wide range that trill up high and growl down low — so she seemingly passes the test. But pop is built on image almost as much as it is music. Consider the iconic music video for “Single Ladies,” or even the premise of Beyoncé’s alter ego Sasha Fierce. No matter how invested Beyoncé is in these projects, it is still a mask, it is still a performance and there is some amount of artifice at play.
When we are confronted with these lip-sync scandals, this tension is most obvious. On one hand, we vilify artists like Simpson — and before her, Britney Spears and Milli Vanilli — for lip-syncing and label artists like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj as “fake.” On the other, these same artists enjoy massive commercial success. Even Simpson is included here; her smart distillation of Avril-inspired pop rock propelled her debut album “Autobiography” to triple platinum status. While album sales and chart performance are not necessarily linked to quality, these examples show that big hooks, carefully crafted music and a well-defined image will almost always trump authenticity in the pop arena. Authenticity and artifice aren’t mutually exclusive, but our culture’s emphasis on the former in the wake of these lip-sync non-events reinforces a false ideal.
At this point, any discussion of Beyoncé has turned to backstage photos of her rehearsing for the hotly anticipated Super Bowl Halftime Show. Whether she will sing live is an important question, but will it be any more important than whether she does the “Single Ladies” dance, or how many costume changes there will be, or if it’ll be awkward when Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams join her onstage? Given our image-driven, GIF-happy Internet culture, my guess is no.