Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Do It Live! We’ll Do It Live!

Being as I’m such a choir director and all, this post may not go in quite the direction you’d expect.

But I could not ignore the confluence of online events … namely, two separate people posted to my Facebook wall this graphic, and on my news feed (all full of band musicians and such) the item has gone seriously viral:

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Another Presidential Inauguration has come and gone. People have found lots in it to get themselves knotted up about, and lots in it to praise to the high heavens. Sometimes these “lots” are in fact the same event! Amazing! We Americans are such a versatile bunch.

As you will have guessed, one event that will generates opinion is the performance of the National Anthem, difficult musical item that it is. I always await the Banner with trepidation, except in the cases where I’m standing in front of a group that I know will perform it in such a way that it doesn’t make anyone’s “top ten worst” list. When I attend public events that require the Anthem to be played – sports contests, graduations, town meetings, whatever – that sound you hear is usually my teeth gently grinding.

Could be a lyric foulup (once I heard “through the perilous night” and I couldn’t stop myself from whispering, “…close”). Could be a poor choice of starting pitch: if you start too high, your airplane will end up in close Earth orbit and airplanes don’t do that very well. Could be “o’er the land of the freeeeeeeeee”, which is plenty high on a good day, thank you (and how many singers then take it up a perfect fourth for show? More than ought to. And usually the ones who are least qualified to do so … are the most likely to try anyway). I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only musician in the assembled throng who wishes they could get out there and help somehow.

I’ve also previously suggested in this space that I wish it could be returned to sing-along status. In spite of how hard it is to sing. That seems unlikely (although the fans of the MLS Portland Timbers soccer team doggedly try to buck this trend).

So, at the 57th Presidential Inauguration, Beyonce Knowles approached the microphone; and I wished her well.

The Marine Band struck up; the wind kicked up; and Beyonce held forth.

I like Beyonce Knowles. (Carter? Knowles-Carter? I’m so behind.) I don’t know whether I’m the first person people would think of when constructing their list of “People Who Like Beyonce, Because Well Obviously”, at least maybe not to look at my music collection, or in fact to look at me at all.

I’ve heard her sing, and I’ve liked it. She does well. Seems like lately, well, forgive me, but … one pop songstress can sound like ten others. If you blindfold me and play a bunch of recent “pop diva hits” at me, I will probably not be able to identify many individuals, let alone answer correctly the question “okay, which one was Alicia Whatsername?” The pop music industry seems to churn them out at a pretty high rate of equivalence than it used to. I can tell the difference between Aretha and Diana; starting with the early ’90s, I begin to have more difficulty. (On the other hand, plenty of people wonder how I can tell the difference between the Blue Devils, the Blue Knights and the Bluecoats. So I listen a little more closely to that world. So sue me.) But I do like the Beyonce voice a lot.

The first time I really paid attention to Beyonce was when she played secret agent Foxy Cleopatra in the third Austin Powers movie. (Had to do a little Destiny’s Child homework, thereafter.) She seemed to be having such a blast playing the role – and she had actual comic timing! (Next time “Goldmember” is on TV again, don’t watch Mike Myers – watch Beyonce playing off Mike Myers. Trust me.) Ever watch an actor or actress in a movie and think, even though s/he was just playing a role, “I bet s/he – not the character, but that actual human who was paid to be in that movie – would be a kick to hang out with”…? That was me, thinking about Ms. Knowles. She just looked like fun. I hoped it was really true. I’ve been fooled before.

So, I carried this into yesterday’s observance of her Anthem performance. I wanted her to do well, and perhaps it colored my thinking a bit. But after the thing was over, I raced to the social media world and posted!…

I like Beyonce Knowles. I’ve liked her ever since she appeared to be having such a good time beimg Foxy Cleopatra. And now I have a new favorite National Anthem singer from Famous Pop Star Land. She hit that thing out of the park.”

Hyperbole? Perhaps. (Um, yeah.) Maybe just relief that it was, basically, good. Online commenters have wondered if she was ripping off the Whitney Houston rendition, from the 1991 Super Bowl pregame (just after the first Gulf War began – so in that moment, patriotism seemed inextricably linked with volume).

I can see the family resemblance; but I would submit that the Whitney Houston version, for all its bravura turns, did more to amplify Ms. Houston than it did the national song. One can make a case for that arrangement being wildly overblown – right from the get-go, anything less than forte singing would have been overwhelmed by the accompaniment.

Heresy!! I know. Speak no ill of the fallen, and all that. But it’s the way I’ve always felt about that 1991 version – singing like a howitzer has its place, but I don’t know that the National Anthem is it. Even if we are singing about rockets’ red glare.

Beyonce’s rendition yesterday included some vocal ornamenting, which I’ve railed against; but a limited amount. Her singing, in many places, was actually on the healthy side. When she went for the aforementioned (and lamented) extra perfect fourth up, she got it, with an effortless sound as opposed to the Vocal Apocalypse. And for the very very most part, her musical presentation, her choice of stylistic turns, and even her body language as she arrived at the microphone, all hinted that the performance might not be just For The Greater Glory Of Beyonce.

Perhaps we’re using that late-twentieth-century / early-twenty-first-century sliding scale here, but all things considered: nicely done. Ya done good.

And that, up till early this afternoon, would have been where this finished up.

 

More and more, I get my news from social media. Someone posts a reaction to something, and I gotta go dig around and see what that something is, because 140 characters is not enough to include all the journalistic Who, What, Where, When, How, and most importantly Why.

Rumors began to circulate that … uh-oh … Beyonce may have lip-synched the Anthem.

At first, my heart sank. (Gawker.com posted a fluffy but humorous piece today about the Seven Stages of Beyonce Grief.) As a music professional, I’d like to think that I can spot that sort of electronic jiggery-pokery a mile off. Maybe Beyonce is that good of a performer that she can lip-synch to the point that you don’t know … and make you maybe not care, even if you did suspect. Maybe. Was I taken in? Did Foxy Cleopatra cloud my professional judgment?

Drama sting.

Perhaps more conclusively: a spokesperson for the U.S. Marine Corps band said that Beyonce “did in fact lip synch. ‘We all know Beyonce can sing,’ Master Sgt. of the U.S. Marine Band Kristin duBois told ABC News today. ‘We all know the Marine Corps Band can play. We do not know why she decided to go with the pre-recorded music at the last minute.’”

(A statement from a different spokesperson, Captain Kendra Motz, Media Officer of the U.S. Marine Band, said that the Presidential Inaugural Committee requested they accompany Beyonce in her performance, but “there was no opportunity for Ms. Knowles-Carter to rehearse with the Marine Band before the Inauguration so it was determined that a live performance by the band was ill-advised for such a high-profile event.” And, in what seemed to be a rebuke of Master Sgt. DuBois, Capt. Motz continued, “Each piece of music scheduled for performance in the Inauguration is pre-recorded for use in case of freezing temperatures, equipment failure, or extenuating circumstances. Regarding Ms. Knowles-Carter’s vocal performance, no one in the Marine Band is in a position to assess whether it was live or pre-recorded.” Hmmmm. The plot thickens, if anyone cares to be interested. There was no opportunity for a rehearsal? Before the Presidential Inauguration? – an event that is rehearsed more thoroughly than any other event on planet Earth for security reasons alone? I’m suspicious, and I don’t even know what exactly about. At the very least, am I to understand that there are two Marine Corps Band spokespeople having an argument in the press tent?!)

Shortly thereafter, I regained my equilibrium and began to consider all those lists of top ten worst Banner renditions ever. Or top thirteen, or top twenty – which might cause one to think, “good Lord, there are that many memorably awful performances from events that would invite an official video record.”

Most of the really bad ones? Done live.

Without linking to any of them, because this blog wants to leave you with a positive experience … right away, the names Roseanne Barr, Carl Lewis and Steven Tyler come to mind (and that’s before this past weekend’s AFC Championship game). Whether the culprit was bad performance choices, forgotten or mangled lyrics, or “personal touches” (as has been mentioned in this space, this song is not for you to “make your own”, please), you can bet it’s the live performance that is the most fraught with danger, especially when some performers don’t even know what they’re going to do until the moment hits.

A couple of years ago, here, I addressed Christina Aguilera’s Super Bowl Banner-singing issues, which included all of the above issues. In a big event such as that, witnessed by billions of people worldwide, it’s the kind of thing you don’t want to screw up. You’d certainly think so, anyway.

In a big event like a Presidential Inauguration, any performer – musician or speaker – is similarly being observed by a great many people all over the world. But an Inauguration is vastly different. A Super Bowl might be historic, if the game behaves. An Inauguration will be, no matter what. An Inaugural performer’s surroundings are draped in dignity, and a sort of pomp and circumstance that is in its own way more intense and assuredly more intimidating. (You’re being watched by all three branches of government simultaneously, live and in person.) There is no confetti or fireworks. There is no booming announcer (there is only Chuck Schumer, and his voice don’t boom).

Given this, I think one can be forgiven for accepting the opportunity to have an ace in the hole – an insurance policy. (No doubt Beyonce Knowles, as a singer, was vetted right down to the soles of her shoes. Even live, there will be no surprises, please and thank you, says the gentle request from the Office of the President of the United States.)

Music projected into vast open outdoor spaces (Super Bowls are routinely indoor events now) is problematic sometimes. And don’t discount the cold. Brass valves freeze; bass strings break (I have personal experience with this). No less an authority on live performance than James Taylor – who did sing live rather than lip-synching (because let’s face it, even JT would have a hard time lip-synching JT and his guitar) – told ABC’s Good Morning America program, “It’s always hard for a guitar player to play when it’s cold because your hands sort of stiffen up and you know nerves tend to do that to you anyway. So I was, you know, very relieved to have gotten through it without any major train wrecks.”

Still, there was one moment which might yet call the whole lip-synching question … into question. Beyonce reached up and pulled an earpiece out of her left ear. Now … if that were to be revealed as an act of theater, I admit I will be disappointed – was it necessary? If not, it distracted from the performance, and that’s surely not the point.) On the other hand, if it were revealed to be a mid-course correction in the service of maybe not wishing to hear two conflicting accompaniment tracks and wishing to go with the one that was being heard by the entire National Mall, I could concede the reasoning. Perhaps, because she is a professional, she knew what would serve her performance best. If she was actually singing … or if she needed to make sure her lip-synching matched what people were seeing. What’s worse than lip-synching? Bad lip-synching.

In the end, was it a together performance? Yes. Were there mistakes? Not noticeably, except perhaps her first note, which was not as solid as the rest of it (and don’t you think they’d go back and fix that in the recording session? Ah ha! Perhaps ’twas live!). Were there forgotten or forged lyrics? No indeed.

Was it Beyonce singing in the style she knows best? Yes (and no – there were a couple of moments in which she could have gone all gospel/R&B ornamentational but didn’t). Was it also a respectful presentation of the National Anthem, in both musical and physical presentation? Yes. Did Beyonce take ridiculous bows at the end? No. It was not all For the Greater Glory of herself.

By the way, this just in: Whitney Houston in 1991?

Lip-synched. And the world didn’t seem to care, then.

Beyonce in 2013? One way or the other, live or Memorex – hardly a national embarrassment.

Yeah. Ya done fine.

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January 22, 2013 - Posted by | blogging, celebrity, entertainment, Facebook, Famous Persons, government, Internet, media, movies, music, social media, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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