Beyonce's critics sound too dumb for words

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The only person who has a right to be catty about Beyonce Knowles' performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Inauguration this week is Aretha Franklin -- and she's not taking the bait.

When the Queen of Soul performed at President Barack Obama's first inauguration, her voice cracked in temperatures a lot colder than what Beyonce and the crowd experienced on Monday.

Beyonce is catching hell for singing the National Anthem over a pre-recorded instrumental track of the United States Marine Band. Because there was no disclaimer, this is considered shady by many because the conductor pointed his baton at the musicians as if sounds were really coming from their instruments.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, claims quickly spread that Beyonce's "live" vocals must have been pre-recorded, too. This is nonsense, but it has already become gospel for both casual disparagers in the mainstream media and conspiracy theorists alike.

The fact that Ms. Knowles hasn't issued a statement contradicting her critics isn't a confirmation that they're right. There's every reason to believe Jay-Z's better half might even be enjoying the notoriety of being thought of as a phony. It dwarfs any controversy either of them have ever generated by a factor of 10. It can only help promote her recently announced reunion album with Destiny's Child and could explain why she's willing to appear half-naked on the cover of the latest GQ magazine.

The more people talk about Beyonce Knowles as if she's this year's Milli Vanilli, the bigger the audience that will tune in to next month's Super Bowl halftime show to see her truly lip sync over her greatest hits. Meanwhile, the consummate self-marketer -- who sometimes goes by the name "Sasha Fierce" -- is going to sell a lot more CDs and digital downloads between now and then.

Given the very profitable upside to being misunderstood, I can imagine why Ms. Knowles is in no hurry anytime soon to end what is a very stupid controversy. Explaining her use of a pre-recorded instrumental track to folks who consider the amateur hour shenanigans of "American Idol" great singing may be too dispiriting.

In his seminal 1961 work "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America," the late historian and theorist Daniel J. Boorstin coined a term that described perfectly the postmodern synthesis of politics and the entertainment-friendly choreographing of reality. Boorstin called these non-spontaneous moments that were supposed to look spontaneous "pseudo-events," because they were elaborate simulations of real things projected onto a larger canvas. These events are tailor-made for broad dissemination in what Boorstin called an "age of contrivance."

Every presidential inauguration qualifies as an example of the kind of scripted pseudo-event Boorstin told us about. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had already been sworn into office in private ceremonies the day before, so everything that happened on Monday was literally for the sake of the cameras.

Nothing is left to chance in televised presidential inaugurations. Everything is staged. Spontaneity is discouraged in favor of predictable, programmable ritual. Beyonce understands this. That's why she made a rational decision to sing over a pre-recorded instrumental track. She didn't have an opportunity to rehearse with the U.S. Marine Band beforehand.

The folks screaming the most about Beyonce's performance have said nothing about the fact that both Kelly Clarkson and the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir performed over pre-recorded tracks at the Obama inauguration, too. Only "Sweet Baby" James Taylor braved the cold by strumming his guitar because the intimacy of his performance required it. He didn't even wear a hat.

No one complained when the late Whitney Houston lip-synced over pre-recorded vocals and an instrumental track when she belted out the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991. Despite the fact that it would violate the sensibilities of a whole bunch of hypocrites if it were performed the same way today, Ms. Houston's version is still the gold standard by which all other versions are judged, including Ms. Franklin's and Ms. Knowles'.

In a way, I blame White House officials. They could very easily clear up the mystery of Beyonce's performance by explaining to the press what happened. Instead, they've thrown yet another bone to conspiracy theorists by letting her twist in the wind.

Aretha is right. Beyonce did nothing wrong. She may have "99 problems," to paraphrase her husband, but messing up pseudo-events ain't one.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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