Is it live, or is it Memorex?
Many remember that now iconic ad line from the 1980s. You may also remember the commercial for a competitor, Maxell, which you can see above. The question that is being beaten to death in the press is, did Beyonce really sing the National Anthem, or was it a recording?
In the greater scheme of things, Washington has far more important things to worry about than whether Beyonce lip-synced the National Anthem. It does, however, make for some very good discussion in this digital age.
In 1988, German producer and songwriter Frank Farian recorded a group album with a number of different vocalists, none of whom he deemed marketable. So, he hired two dancer/models, Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, who were the faces/frontmen of the group Milli Vanilli.
Everything was going beautifully, up to and including a Grammy for Best New Artist, when the wheels fell off. The recording hung up in concert. Pilatus and Morvan did their best to cover until things were fixed, but it was over. Press conferences ensued as the two “singers” tried to convince the world that they had, indeed, recorded the vocals, that they only lip-synched due to fatigue. No go. The Grammy was taken back and their careers were finished. Pilatus would be dead a few years later, Morvan attempted to resurrect his career, and Farian tried to put projects together. At one point, he was trying to produce a film about Milli Vanilli.
What does that have to do with Classical music, you ask? Well, plenty. Not so much the lip-synching, but the production of recordings.
One thing about seeing a live performance, whether an orchestra, singer, opera, or solo musician, is that the performance is live. No backing tracks, no overdubs, no stunt doubles.
It’s one of the things that makes a Classical music performance so special, these musicians are walking out on stage with an acoustic instrument and delivering the goods.
Did Beyonce lip-synch the National Anthem? Apparently. Is there any question that she can deliver that performance? None whatsoever.
Four years ago, a similar problem presented itself when Anthony McGill, Gabriela Montero, Itzhak Perlman, and Yo Yo Ma decided that playing their instruments in the bitterly cold weather was not going to work, so a recording made two days previously was fed to the television pool and speakers. The performers stated that the cold weather could have affected the tuning and durability of the instruments, making a live performance too risky. You think?
Two of those instruments are valued in the millions of dollars. Even exposing them to that temperature extreme, then taking them back indoors was risky, much less playing them.
In a recording studio, you expect to do multiple takes, listen back, and use your best performance. After all, once that recording is out there, it’s out there forever. You want it to be as close to perfection as it can be.
However, no matter how much I enjoy hearing recordings, nothing can ever replace a musician onstage walking that musical tightrope in a live performance. Maybe it’s time to rethink having musicians trying to perform in what is almost always going to be extreme conditions in Washington D.C. in January, or at least quit trying to make it bigger and better every four years.