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It seems somewhat fitting that a lip-syncing controversy would grip the latest Presidential Inauguration. The underfunding of arts and music in education from the federal level down has caused such a deficiency in both talent and musical appreciation throughout the country, it’s no wonder we lean on technology to deliver on the American promise of unattainable perfection. Really, the person we have to blame most for Beyoncé’s slight to authenticity is ourselves.
As a friend of music, I’m delighted to see our nation’s most important and unifying moments regaled with song. But there’s almost always a hitch–an embarrassing moment sullying what is supposed to be a moment of inspiration. Our generation’s ample offering of reality TV singing contests are the scourge of the music world in many ways, but they seem proficient at plucking an endless supply of talent off the American streets that can manage perfect pitch without being pre-recorded. Yet when it comes to a Presidential Inauguration, when the talent pool narrows to pick performers, one of the overlooked requisites is someone who can actually sing without aid in the anticipated weather conditions. Even the highest seats of government have been touched by the desire to stay perpetually hip and relevant, and appeal to youth. If the White House is supposed to be a reflection of the people, then they have the shallow perspective built on celebrity worship down pat.
Now that it’s been established that Beyoncé did lip sync at the Inauguration, everyone wants to know if we’ll see a repeat performance at the 2013 Super Bowl, where Beyoncé is the halftime performer. I can’t tell you one way or another, but one insight I can provide is how Garth Brooks completely changed the rules for using pre-recorded tracks at The Super Bowl, and likely all nationally-televised performances in 1993.
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Portions of this story were originally posted in Feb. of 2010
At the 1993 Super Bowl in Pasadena, CA, Garth Brooks was the artist selected to sing the National Anthem. Garth was asked to make a pre-recorded version as a backup even though he intend to sing live, but Garth Brooks refused. Was this because Garth wanted to be authentic? This may have been his alibi initially, but later it would be revealed his decision was part of a much bigger plan.
Garth’s 1992 album The Chase included a song called “We Shall Be Free”, a gospel-esque tune that Garth wrote after spending time in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 1992 race riots following the Rodney King verdict. Garth was hoping to debut a video for the song during the Super Bowl that included numerous celebrity cameos. However NBC, the broadcaster of the game that year, rejected the video because of “content some felt was disturbing imagery.” The “We Shall Be Free” video included clips of flag burnings, cross burnings, the Ku Klux Klan, intravenous drug use, riots, bombings, war scenes, natural disasters, and other questionable content; images that NBC did not want to broadcast to the family-friendly Super Bowl audience.
So Garth, 45 minutes before he was supposed to perform the Anthem, pulled one of the most bold stunts in Super Bowl history to force NBC’s hand: he walked out of the Rose Bowl stadium entirely, refusing to sing unless they aired his video. As can be imagined, everything leading up to and during the Super Bowl is planned down to the second, and this sent NBC and the NFL reeling.
Producers tried to rationalize with Garth, explaining that there was no time budgeted for the video, but Garth held his ground, and a standoff ensued. With 91 million people tuning in from all around the world, they had no National Anthem performer, and Garth had the foresight to not give them a pre-recorded version that they could use as an alternative.
This was the worst case scenario for Super Bowl organizers. An NBC producer spotted John Bon Jovi in the Super Bowl crowd, and began to prep him as a plan B. Garth Brooks had NBC right where he wanted them, and the NFL could see that. So the NFL did something completely unprecedented in Super Bowl history. They delayed the kickoff to accommodate the airing of the Garth video.
Garth Brooks had won, but authenticity in nationally-televised live performances lost. According to former NFL executive director Don Weiss in his book The Making of the Super Bowl: The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Sporting Event, since the Garth incident in 1993, the NFL has made it a requirement that all National Anthem singers make a pre-recorded version of their performances. Ricky Minor, the Super Bowl’s music director for many years and the current bandleader on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show says about pre-recording tracks and lip syncing performances, “That’s the right way to do it. There’s too many variables to go live. I would never recommend any artist go live, because the slightest glitch would devastate the performance.”
In 1991, Whitney Houston sang the Super Bowl National Anthem, and it was considered by some at the time to be one of the best Anthem performances ever. Then it was revealed the performance was pre-recorded. In 2009 Jennifer Hudson sang the National Anthem months after members of her family had been killed. She was called “inspiring,” until it was revealed later that she had lip synced as well. And it doesn’t stop at vocalists. Cello player Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman faked playing to a pre-recorded track at Obama’s first Inauguration 4 years ago.
And there’s no reason to think many other inspiring moments of national unity will be passed over for the predictability of pre-recorded performances, until the American public begins to demand authenticity over the facade of perfection.
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