Saturday February 2, 2013

For Beyoncé, the score is tied: It's lip-synching 1, and promises not to, 1.

In public, the debate continues among musicians and music fans over live vs. fake at concerts and special events.

At a press conference Thursday, Beyoncé acknowledged she sang to a pre-recorded track of the national anthem at President Obama's inauguration on Jan. 21, but she vowed she'll sing live during the Super Bowl halftime show in New Orleans on Sunday.

The superstar singer said she lip-synched at the inauguration because she had no sound check and no rehearsal time with the accompanying Marine Corps band.

Robin O'Herin, an acoustic blues singer and guitarist from Lee, said high-tech music videos have conditioned musicians and fans to accept lip-synching.

"Personally, I think it's really wrong, but I can understand why it happens," she said. "With all the digital techniques, someone can sound good on a recording, but a live performance is another story. It's a shame; something has been lost."

Berkshires-based country singer/songwriter Bobby Sweet said he's surprised at the amount of controversy from "the same society that has created a pop culture where so much of our music is tweaked, tuned and polished beyond human measure."

"I think the major difference here is that somebody actually noticed and blew the whistle," Sweet said.

He called it "a shame in a way" that the music business is so focused on perfection.


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"My feeling is that some of the best music out there is the stuff that still has the rough edges on it," Sweet said. "The singer may not quite get to the note, or the guitar may be a little out of tune, but that is what most music sounds like before the miracle of modern technology steps in."

In Sweet's view, "The audience has come to expect these perfect performances, and largely eats it up, real or not. I don't hold it against Beyoncé, and my hat is certainly off to James [Taylor] for keeping it real."

Taylor, the national icon who lives in the town of Washington, performed "America the Beautiful" live during Obama's inauguration. Taylor confirmed to The Eagle that he has never lip-synched, though he did pre-record a guitar part for a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade telecast in 2008 on an extremely cold day.

Meanwhile, Pittsfield singer/ songwriter Tony Lee Thomas endorsed live, authentic performances, though he acknowledged that the production requirements of high-stakes shows can justify the use of pre-recorded tracks.

"Personally, as a music patron, I have the expectation of ‘live' and feel entitled to it," he said. Thomas described the merging of performance and technology as "an evolution of popular music in our age. So much now revolves around sampling and technical production."

For some younger music fans in the Berkshires, lip-synching is a minor point. Asked whether she cares, Kara Greiner, 22, of Pittsfield, responded with a firm "no."

"I don't think it really matters," she said. "All of it is recorded anyway if you think about the albums, so they might as well sound right. A lot of them can't dance, entertain and sing at the same time. I've never cared and I've never really known anyone who gets offended or upset if they find out their favorite musician has lip-synched."

But older music fans insist on live performances -- "definitely," said Michael Cleary, 63, of Lenox. "If they're lip-synching, you might as well stay home and listen to a CD or watch a video."

Cleary, a former New York City resident, recalled attending concerts by Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Elton John and Rod Stewart at Madison Square Garden in the 1970s for $5 or $10 a ticket.

"We want the real deal, and with the kind of money they charge now, you need to mortgage the house to see these things," he said.

Cleary acknowledged that while it's difficult to sing in the cold, he believes Beyoncé should have told the crowd if she decided to use a pre-recorded vocal track.

"James Taylor would never do that," Cleary said. "He's a class act."

"For me, lip-synching would be much harder than singing," Taylor said, recalling that at Obama's 2009 inauguration, it was so cold that violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma mimed to a pre-recorded track of John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts."

Pre-recording for major outdoor events has been routine for decades -- Whitney Houston's rendition of the anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl was lip-synched, as was Jennifer Hudson's version at the 2009 Super Bowl. Faith Hill performed "America the Beautiful" to a backup track at the same event.

But for regular concerts, Taylor said he firmly believes that audiences are understandably disappointed if they hear pre-recorded vocals.

"If something is advertised as live, the point is the event is happening in real time in the real moment," he said. "When people sing to tracks in a live concert, that's bogus and fraudulent, and people shouldn't do it."

Tanglewood audiences can rest assured that everything will be live at Boston Pops events, according to Dennis Alves, the orchestra's director of artistic planning.

"People's expectations in this day and age for all performances are that they want it to sound like the CD," Alves said. "Those expectations are unfairly high."

"A lot of these folks, like Taylor Swift, perform to pre-recorded tracks when they go out on the road because they don't bring along the same number of musicians as in the recording studio," he said.

Swift did not lip-synch when she performed in two Taylor concerts at Tanglewood last July.

The Grammy Awards on Feb. 10 and the Academy Awards on Feb. 24 will give music fans opportunities to scrutinize their favorite performers.

A source at the Academy Awards said Adele "fully expects to perform the nominated song ‘Skyfall' live, but just in case something goes wrong, there will be a pre-recorded track for a fall-back option -- but only if needed."

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com,
or (413) 637-2551
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

If you watch ...

n Super Bowl XLVII

When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m., CBS.

Where: Superdome, New Orleans.

Music: Alicia Keys, national anthem; Beyoncé, 12-minute halftime set, possibly with Destiny's Child.

n Grammy Awards

When: Sunday, Feb. 10, 8 p.m., CBS.

Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles.

Key performers: The Black Keys, Mumford & Sons, Elton John, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Carrie Underwood.

n Academy Awards

When: Sunday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m., ABC.

Where: Dolby Theatre, Los Angeles.

Key performers: Adele, Barbara Streisand.