Want Singers to Do the National Anthem Live? Don't Ridicule Flubs

If Beyoncé lip synced, it's in part because America only wants perfection or train wrecks.

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AP Photo/Evan Vucci

We don't know for sure whether Beyoncé Knowles lip synced to a prerecorded rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Monday's inauguration, as a Marine Corps Band spokeswoman alleged Tuesday. We shouldn't be surprised if she did. We should, though, take a moment to question the cost of America's unforgiving attitude toward the singing of the national anthem.

Beyoncé shouldn't feel much shame if she used a recording. Event organizers these days don't even attempt to keep secret that lip-syncing has become something like standard practice among the divas who sing anthems at high-pressure occasions. Whitney Houston's untouchable rendition was prerecorded. Jennifer Hudson's memorable version at the Superbowl XLIII was as well.

Indeed, The NFL has regularly asked performers for prerecorded tracks since 1993, according to the St. Petersburg Times. The variables at the big-stakes moment are simply too risky, event organizers say, for a genuinely live performance.

And yet, every time the truth comes out about a prerecorded rendition, it's greeted by disappointment from media and fans. Beyoncé certainly received plenty of that yesterday. In such instances, there's often a common defense. Of Whitney Houston's performance, John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in the New York Times Magazine, "Lip-synced, but she'd sung it somewhere." The Atlantic Wire's Richard Lawson makes a similar argument for Beyoncé:

I mean, she did still sing the song. It just wasn't live-live. It was live to tape. No one's saying she auto-tuned herself or anything. Let's cut the lady some slack. She can sing that song, we all know she can sing that song.

Sullivan and Lawson have a point. Give most Americans unlimited access to a recording studio for a year, and it's unlikely they'd turn in anything like Beyoncé's rendition, not without the help of some heavy-handed sound engineering, anyway.

Still, there's something sad about this state of affairs. If we're so sure that these women could perform at the highest level—and make no mistake, evidence suggests both Whitney and Beyoncé could—why deny us the pleasure of watching them actually do it? If the knowledge that somewhere, at some point, Beyoncé sang a great national anthem is sufficient for American listeners, then why even ask her to appear alongside her recording? Why not just play it for us so we can appreciate its prerecorded glory without the charade?

Because to most of us, the recording isn't sufficient. Because America likes to think it's been allowed to watch something extraordinary.

Admittedly, we've seen what can go wrong when organizers leave these things to chance. Jennifer Hudson began an a cappella version of "God Bless America" just a little higher than she should have at Game One of the 2006 World Series, and consequently swung and missed on the final note. Her attempt has been forever archived on YouTube under the headline "Jennifer Hudson BUTCHERS God Bless America."

More notoriously, at Super Bowl XLV, Christina Aguilera sang "What so proudly we watched at the twilight's last reaming." (She meant "O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming.") People excoriated her.

When it comes to our anthem, rangy and verbose though it is, we're not a forgiving nation. In fact, we're sometimes comically particular. Massachusetts still has a law on the books that fines a person $100 for performing the anthem with "embellishment or addition" or, bizarrely, for performing it "as dance music." (Had the stodgy New Englanders known about Mariah Carey, they might have banned multi-octave leaps into dog-whistle range, too.)

No wonder, then, that Beyoncé might have decided to go with the recording. Still, looking back now, there's a thrill to Kelly Clarkson's rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" at the inauguration, which was initially overshadowed by Beyoncé's performance but has gained luster with the news that she did in fact sing live. Her voice sounded shaky at the outset, and she admitted afterward to being extraordinarily nervous (and cold). And yet, when her voice jumps the octave to belt the third verse, the feat is all the more thrilling, a reminder that Clarkson got where she is thanks to a show dedicated to live singing. American Idol's persistently high ratings, in fact, stand as a testament to the country's fascination with truly of-the-moment performances, both good and bad.

When watching the national anthem performed, Americans should be as they are watching American Idol auditions: ready for anything. If event organizers allowed us that serendipity, and if we treated those who fell flat with a bit less vitriol, once in a while, we just might get to glimpse a confoundingly talented performer do something absolutely astonishing, right before our eyes.