Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term last week.
I mention that only because there’s a good chance you missed it. That news, after all, was overshadowed by an apparently more important story out of Washington. It was a story that, according to the New York Daily News, caused the public to react in “outrage,” a word The Daily Mail in London echoed. One poor fellow tweeted that his life was “shattered” by it. And a local anchor in D.C. even affixed the dreaded scandal suffix: “gate.”
Beyonce-gate, I believe she called it.
As in Beyonce Knowles-Carter, the pop chanteuse who, it was revealed last week, lip-synced her show-stopping performance of the national anthem at the inauguration, thereby causing earthquakes in diverse places, cats to mate with dogs, blood to rain from the sky and the Earth to begin a slow spiral into the sun.
We are not gathered here today to defend the lady. Or, for that matter, to bury her.
No, we are gathered only to say that, putting aside the high-profile setting of her chicanery, what she did is hardly unique. It is, to the contrary, a sign of the times.
Ours long ago became a culture in which the end justified the means, even if the means were misleading or downright duplicitous. Fakery is now an everyday artifact of our lives, as witness the debacles of Lance Armstrong, Mark McGwire, Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and the U.S. economic meltdown. Indeed, we should probably be grateful Beyonce at least lip-synced to her own voice.
Milli Vanilli, you may recall, did not.
I went to my first concert in 1973, and remember being disappointed that the songs did not sound exactly like the records. What I came to understand — and appreciate — was that a live performance was a different animal than a finished studio product. In live concert, the singer was working the proverbial high wire without a net, showcasing his raw talent in an unforgiving environment where there were no retakes or edits, producing a spontaneous, never-to-be-recreated moment where anything might happen and sometimes did. It was an act of artistic daring.
The key word in all of that being, “was.”
Someone attending her first concert in 2013 would likely be appalled at the idea of accepting anything less than a note-perfect recreation of the audio — and/or video — experience. Which is how you get incidents like the one an engineer friend of mine once told me about. While working a live awards show, he had to use a machine to fix in real time the voice of a certain beautiful, but talent-challenged, singer. And this was in the 1990s.
So the furor over Beyonce feels at once vaguely amusing, tediously overwrought and about a generation late.
Once upon a time, we sang the virtues of authenticity. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” went one song title. “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” went another. But those songs — and virtues — are decades out of date. Beyonce did not create the new Zeitgeist, she is simply a child thereof — and if her performance was an implicit untruth, well, the same can be said of much of our arts, sports, news media and certainly our politics, rife with talking points and message discipline but void of simple respect for your or my intelligence.
Lies, implicit and explicit, are woven into life to a degree that would have made a 1940s Hollywood press agent grin — and stunned a reporter who once kept Jack Kennedy’s extramarital secrets. And someone calls it an “outrage” that Beyonce lip-synced “The Star-Spangled Banner”?
What’s outrageous is that authenticity is disappearing from whole sectors of public life like condensation from a pane of glass. And that did not begin last week. It’s been happening for years. It’s been happening all around.
With apologies to Beyonce: Oh, say, can you see?
— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.