High-profile vocalists, including 2009 presidential inauguration singer Aretha Franklin, are coming to Beyoncé Knowles’ defense since the singer came under fire for reportedly lip-synching the “Star Spangled Banner” at President Obama’s inauguration Monday.
“When I heard the news this evening that she was prerecorded, I really laughed,” Franklin told ABC News. “I thought it was funny because the weather down there was about 46 or 44 degrees, and for most singers that is just not good singing weather.” The 70-year-old Queen of Soul said Beyoncé “did a beautiful job with the prerecord ... next time I’ll probably do the same.”
If Beyoncé did sing along to a prerecorded vocal track while performing the famously tricky national anthem, the 31-year-old singer would be far from the first.
Whitney Houston’s much-praised take on it at the 1991 Super Bowl may have cracked the Billboard singles chart, but she performed using prerecorded vocals at the telecast. At Obama’s 2009 inauguration, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman also prerecorded their performances, as the cold weather would have made playing their instruments outdoors extremely difficult. Singing and playing along to previously cut tracks is a common practice for televised live events, especially those held outdoors in cold weather.
“Some artists [use tracks] because they’re insecure, but she’s such a good singer, hands down one of the best today,” said Eric Schilling, who supervises sound mixing for the Grammy telecast and has overseen live mixes for myriad award shows and the Super Bowl. He said live performances at that scale often incorporate varying degrees of prerecorded vocal and instrumental tracks, especially when involving pop artists who dance or singers who perform in acoustically challenging spaces (like, say, the National Mall). Full-on lip-synching is relatively rare, but “at really large outdoor events or something like the Super Bowl, I’ve definitely seen people do that.”
Beyoncé's reps hadn’t confirmed by press time Wednesday exactly what was coming through the speakers during her performance at Monday’s inauguration. CNN reported Wednesday than an unnamed official on Obama’s inauguration committee said that “she did not sing live” and made the decision to do so herself the night before the ceremony.
C3 Presents, an Austin, Texas, company behind the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Lollapalooza, staged the inauguration but declined to comment on Beyoncé's performance.
Fans and music critics initially applauded her virtuoso take on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with extra praise for the seemingly spontaneous moment when she removed her in-ear monitor and kept immaculate pitch.
But questions as to the performance’s authenticity changed the conversation Tuesday when sources with the U.S. Marine Band, who performed atop their own prerecorded music at the inauguration, said that Beyoncé used a taped vocal track in the performance.
A Marine Band spokeswoman told the Times of London: “We did prerecord it, and it was Beyoncé's decision at the last minute to go with the prerecorded version.... We prerecorded all music as a matter of course and have done since time immemorial.” Representatives of fellow inauguration performers Kelly Clarkson and James Taylor have confirmed their performances were live and not prerecorded.
After the news caused an uproar among disappointed fans (that in some ways has eclipsed the day’s myriad other events), another Marine Band spokesman followed up later that day with a walk-back that left room for even more speculation: “Regarding Ms. Knowles-Carter’s vocal performance, no one in the Marine Band is in a position to assess whether it was live or prerecorded,” Capt. Eric Flanagan said. He did affirm that the Marine Band’s instrumental accompaniment was prerecorded.
This week on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” Jennifer Lopez attested to the need for prerecorded vocals at these types of big public performances, saying, “Sometimes it happens when you are in certain stadiums and certain venues and things, they do prerecord stuff because you’re going to have that terrible slap-back,” referring to the natural but distracting echo and reverb that can occur in large venues.
This might not even be the last time Beyoncé uses a prerecorded vocal on a major telecast this year. She’s scheduled to perform, with her bandmates in Destiny’s Child, at the halftime ceremonies of this year’s Super Bowl.
But Schilling said that in most cases, vocally confident artists shouldn’t be afraid of singing live. “Live is always fun and a little different each time. The show will never be flawless, but I’ve found it to be a higher energy and a more engaging performance.”