Beyoncé lip-synched at the second inauguration of President Obama, and now we all know. It’s not a big deal, really! As it turns out, it’s extremely common for big artists to use pre-recorded performances in high-profile settings, from official political ceremonies to major sporting events. It’s not about covering up an artist’s flaws, it’s about making sure things go off smoothly and look and sound as good as possible. It’s show business, basically. But as always, purists who demand a total lack of artifice in their entertainment are pissed off, and the whole situation is a PR nightmare for Beyoncé, a superstar whose appeal is directly connected to the perception that she’s essentially flawless.
Under normal circumstances, this whole thing would just blow over, and the people who are furious about it would move on to some other target and the singer’s fans would just chalk the debacle up to her professionalism and drive for perfection. But unlike other pop singers who could just lie low for a while, Beyoncé actually has a much bigger gig lined up in just a few weeks, as she’s the star of the Super Bowl XLVII halftime show. The question now is, will she feel pressured to avoid lip-synching at the Super Bowl in order to win cred points with the public at large?
If Beyoncé was willing to use a pre-recorded track at the inauguration, it seems likely that she would do the same at the Super Bowl. The audience is larger by several orders of magnitude, and the stakes are much greater, since she’ll no doubt be at the center of a huge spectacle with many moving parts. There’s almost no room for error in a show like this; it’s easy to understand why producers would prefer artifice to risking a musical disaster in the most widely viewed broadcast of the year. (It’s hard enough to keep performers from going off script, like when M.I.A. flipped her middle finger last year, or Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004.)
The NFL has required performers of the national anthem to use a backup track since 1993, after Garth Brooks threatened to back out of singing if the network would not play his latest music video. This made the producers realize that they needed a Plan B in case a singer were to flake at the last minute. But that wasn’t the beginning of lip-synching at the game — even Whitney Houston’s famous performance, widely considered to be the best of all time, was pre-recorded and lip-synched at the game. This isn’t just a matter of protecting the producers, it’s also about serving the reputation of the singer. “That’s the right way to do it,” Super Bowl pre-game producer Rickey Minor told ABC News in 2009 after news broke that Jennifer Hudson and Faith Hill had both lip-synched at the game. “There’s too many variables to go live. I would never recommend any artist go live because the slightest glitch would devastate the performance.”
It is unclear whether or not this practice has carried over to the halftime show, though it’s reasonable to assume that there are some cautionary measures in place. Some performers in recent years, like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Prince, seemed to deliver live, thoroughly off-the-cuff performances, though others, like Madonna and The Who, have been called out for apparent lip-synching.
Beyoncé can only truly win in this situation by being actually perfect, as opposed to just projecting the idea of perfection. She’s a talented professional, and it’s not hard to imagine that she could pull off some grand spectacle and sing without a backup, and do it all without messing anything up. But if she does mess up — and given the complicated nature of everything, and factoring in the possibility of technical issues beyond her control, it’s extremely likely for something to go wrong — it only makes her PR problem worse, as it would confirm to her harshest critics that she “can’t sing,” and that she’s just generally a sham. But it’s only a sham if you believe that Beyoncé’s talent and appeal is strictly about singing. You don’t hire Beyoncé to do the Super Bowl for a display of vocal prowess, you get her because you want the most over-the-top spectacle imaginable. Ultimately, that’s the Beyoncé that people are invested in, and it would be a lot more disappointing for her to show up and not be bombastic and fabulous than for her to not sing live at the stadium.