Bad news for fans of Beyoncé and authenticity-above-all-else: It appears that the singer was lip syncing when she performed at the Inauguration. After initial suspicion arose from live observes that perhaps Beyoncé and her marching band accompaniment were not performing live, The Times UK reported a statement issued by the Marine Corp Band that “it was standard procedure to record a backing track” and that Beyoncé “decided shortly before her performance to rely on the studio version rather than risk singing it live on the Capitol.”
Naturally, this brings back the old debate that pop stars have had to walk a thin line on since decades before Milli Vanilli—is it OK to lip sync in a high-profile performance, especially when the great majority of America assumes you’re performing live? For an esteemed vocalist such as Beyoncé, a proud and acclaimed live performer with obvious pipes to spare, the question is one that needs be asked, and unsurprisingly, many of her fans and critics have taken to Twitter to either defend or condemn the pop star for her pre-recorded take.
For us, while we’d love to think that our favorite performers are superheroes who don’t need any such mechanics to pull off an awe-inspiring performance like Beyoncé’s yesterday, we recognize that there are practical concerns that often complicate such matters. Audio issues, weather conditions playing a factor, the fact that the Star-Spangled Banner is just really, really hard to sing…you can understand why a perfectionist like Beyoncé would want to remove such variables from the equation. Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump wrote a piece about this once, in which he essentially claimed that you couldn’t blame artists who used backing tracks at Super Bowl performances, due to problems caused by the architecture of the football stadiums. It’s a real thing.
And speaking of the Super Bowl, there was once a similarly acclaimed and beloved singer who performed a famous version of the National Anthem—arguably the most famous version—which turned out to be lip synced. Whitney Houston’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at Super Bowl XXV was pre-recorded, but the performance was so inspiring (largely in the actual performative aspects of her appearance, down to her strikingly casual choice of attire) that news of the vocal miming never really ended up tarnishing its impact. The way people felt watching her perform was the important thing, defenders (including us) would argue, and the authentic liveness of the performance was a secondary concern.
Undoubtedly, so too will this will blow over for Beyoncé. We understand the disappointment fans may feel, and we certainly couldn’t begrudge them for it—we’d be lying if we said we weren’t the slightest bit disillusioned ourselves. But she didn’t invent lip syncing the National Anthem, and pre-recorded Beyoncé is still better than live, raw, real just about anybody else. (And for what it’s worth, Kelly Clarkson promises that her performance of “My Country Tis of Thee” was 100% on the level.)