A “Real” Dilemma

By Carl Hausman

Was pop singer Beyoncé was lip-syncing the National Anthem during the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January, 2013?

Basically, the facts of the case are these: Following a flawless presentation of the National Anthem, the internet became abuzz with speculation that Beyoncé actually had mouthed the words to a pre-recorded vocal track.

Accounts differed, and comments from those close to the story changed as the coverage developed. Beyoncé herself has, up to the time this column was written, remained mum.

While some involved in the presentation originally said it was lip-synced in toto, some of those stories were later changed to indicate that only parts of the presentation — segments of the instrumental backing — were pre-recorded.

Meanwhile, the story grew legs, as we say, and as of late last week, acoustic engineers were analyzing recordings of the event (with mixed verdicts as to whether it was live) and musicians with weighty resumes were weighing in about the propriety of substituting lip-syncing for the real thing.

Some news commentators, including this one, note that it’s ironic that this particular controversy emanates from an event that was essentially confected for ceremonial purposes (Obama was actually sworn in the day before) and featured an inaugural address that, if it followed the trend of most presidential addresses, was undoubtedly ghosted at least in part by professional speechwriters.

Happily for ethics columnists (including this one) it’s a classic “line-drawing dilemma,” a perfect vehicle for debate.

On one hand, we certainly tolerate some level of technological intervention in a musical performance, although sometimes grudgingly. Purists are sometimes upset by the use of microphones in live stage plays, for example, arguing that tradition dictates that the performer’s unaugmented voice should fill the hall. (This, of course, begs the question of whether designing a theater for vibrant acoustics is somehow “cheating.”)

Many musical groups use pre-recorded tracks to provide instrumental reinforcement to the background. In one of my previous failed careers, music, I would sometimes use a pre-recorded track from an instrumentalist who wasn’t actually in attendance or use an automated rhythm beat from an electronic piano.

This didn’t seem like cheating to me and probably doesn’t to you, either, especially in light of the fact that no one paid money to see my group play (nor in a just world should they have). But what if you paid several hundred dollars to see a Broadway musical and later learned the entire event was pre-recorded?

How would you react if you paid to see a wildly popular group and learned — when a background record actually started skipping while they were on stage — that the singers were merely mouthing the words? And if you learned upon further investigation that the vocals on their platinum-selling albums actually had been performed by other singers?

As you may remember, that scenario is true: A duo named Milli Vanilli, one of the most popular acts of the late 1980s and early 1990s, was outed when their lip-syncing track began to skip and they scurried off-stage. Later, their Grammy Awards were rescinded when other singers admitted they’d fudged the vocals on the albums, and the group was hit with dozens of lawsuits from angry purchasers who claimed they had been defrauded.

In addition to a line-drawing puzzler, the Beyoncé controversy falls neatly into what Rushworth Kidder characterized as a “right versus right” dilemma — one in which actions on both sides of the issue represent an honorable motive.

It is clearly “right” to want to provide the best possible performance for the audience and to lend dignity to an important event. Outdoor performances are notoriously tricky, with cold air producing bizarre acoustical effects and the chill taking a toll on the performers’ vocal cords and the tuning of the instruments.

But a critic of the alleged lip-syncing could reasonably argue that if the entire song were mouthed the audience was being deceived, and that an event such as a presidential inauguration is an artifact of history and thus deserves the patina of authenticity.

Authenticity is a not-unimportant issue in media, particularly in news and depictions of events purported to be “real.” When videotape was first made practical for use in television broadcasting, networks imposed strict rules about announcing that portions of the program were pre-recorded because of fear that viewers would be deceived about time and place.

While that approach seems quaint by modern standards, it proved to have some merit. Various controversies have surfaced about the “reality” of news, including protests over the use of “cutaway” shots by TV reporters who re-ask questions after the interview so that a one-camera recording can look like it was made with two cameras and a “reverse” shot of the reporter can be used to facilitate editing.

What’s wrong with this approach? For starters, some reporters were re-asking the questions (sometimes after the interviewee had left) in a hostile and aggressive manner, making it appear that they had diligently proved their investigative-reporter mettle by prying the information out of a subject who in fact had offered it quite willingly.

News organizations also came in for some heat when it was revealed that it was common practice to use videotape “as-live,” as the practice is called, meaning that the live anchor would pose a question to an interviewee and a pre-recorded tape would be rolled in response, making it appear that a pre-recorded piece was part of a live conversation.

(Why would a news organization do this? In the news business, “live” coverage is a coveted commodity, which is why we commonly are treated to the spectacle of astonishingly expensive satellite news vans relaying us breathless “live” reports that it’s snowing.)

While “as-live” coverage could be benign, it’s not hard to imagine a temporal shift in late-breaking news that could inadvertently create a serious distortion, so recreation of interviews began to fall out of favor.

So did the practice of local entertainment reporters staging what appeared to be person-to-person interviews with movie stars that actually were confected out of pre-recorded tapes circulated by the studios for the express purpose of constructing convincing but phony interviews, with holes left for insertion of a local reporter’s question.

And, of course, much “reality” television today isn’t real at all. Some shows that look real — right down to shaky hand-held camera shots — are recreated in whole or in part, “based on” what we are told in the fine print during the closing credits are “actual events.”

The ethical implications of the manufactured event are not always trivial. Misconception and misapprehension can have profound effects, and while the alleged lip-syncing of a song is not particularly important, it is an interesting pin-point on the continuum of fabrication of public life and public knowledge.

Former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin crystallized this concept in a 1961 book that is probably more relevant today than when it was published. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Boorstin speculated that not only are synthetic events easier to produce, we also seem to like them better.

The average citizen, Boorstin wrote, “lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We barely dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.”

An interesting thought in an era when it’s not uncommon to see concert-goers transfixed by the image they are recording on their cell phone during a live concert even though the real performers are standing mere yards away — lip-syncing.

What’s your view?  Is a seemingly minor contrivance such as lip-synching unethical?


Author: admin

Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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