Few lips in 2013 have been as scrutinized as Beyoncé Knowles'. On Sunday evening during the Super Bowl halftime show, while the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers were recovering from an hour of head-bashing action, Knowles' lips and the ringing, pitch-perfect voice behind them were the focus of a national drama that had unfolded in the weeks prior.
Drama and halftime shows: not your usual combo.
Last year's tension, after all, was mostly centered on how well Madonna would market her forthcoming record. The year before that featured the Black Eyed Peas, about as menacing an entertainment as a miniature Doberman. But timing is everything, and Beyoncé, one of the world's most popular singers, had something to prove.
Her integrity was at stake, and perhaps as many as 100 million people were measuring it with her.
Nearly two weeks ago, the singer offered a lauded delivery of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during President Obama's second inauguration. Millions watching on television saw her eyes light up, the veins in her neck turn to rope, her lips shape the words and her voice pour forth America's anthem in perfect pitch. Afterward, she smiled proudly.
Then news gradually unfolded that she and the U.S. Marine Band hadn't performed live but to a backing track, and the populace learned that it had not seen and heard what it thought it had: true talent showcasing her art live, commemorating what should be one of the most honest and open of American rituals with a true musical document of a moment in time.
Some said it didn't matter — Aretha Franklin came to her defense. Others thought it cowardly: A superstar's responsibility is to prove she is up to the challenge or politely decline. To them, Beyoncé's lip-sync was a cop-out.
After all, she has at every turn presented herself as an ideal pop star, each onstage action and video performance created to define her as a glamorous Super Woman. As her husband, Jay-Z, represents one ideal — that of a Major Player — Beyoncé has represented herself as an authentic, if larger than life, modern woman. A woman bounding with self-respect. A wife who betters her husband, and vice versa. A mother whose first born is a nearly 13-month-old daughter named Blue Ivy.
When artifice shattered the illusion, people noticed.
She took center stage in New Orleans to shut everybody up. She did — at least those who doubted her skills as a live singer and a performer.
An action-packed, Vegas-style medley of the Houston-born vocalist's many hits, both solo and as part of Destiny's Child, Beyoncé's set — filled with fire, strobes, hologram-esque teams of Beyoncé images dancing in a row — showcased a selection of independent-minded pop specifically choreographed to silence detractors.
The artist who dubbed herself Sasha Fierce made many musical arguments. None involved submitting to doubters.
She played — and sang, live — her big ones, starting with one of the great pop songs of the 2000s, "Crazy in Love," the track that established her not only as a singing force but also as an adept song-picker whose taste in producers is equaled by her skill at turning their tracks into her own hits. "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," "End of Time," "Baby Boy" — each melded seamlessly with one another.
She was joined onstage midset by her bandmates in Destiny's Child for a quick run that included "Bootylicious."
Perhaps the most important sound of her show, though, was unplanned. As she danced and asked that the crowd clap along, her microphone hand made an audible thump. It was loud and obvious. And it proved something true: The mike was live, and our singer was too.