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“The pop superstar Beyoncé’s appearance at President Obama’s second inauguration was immediately declared a rip-roaring success, an outstanding, nuanced, soulful and contemporary delivery of America’s hard-to-sing, two-octave-spanning national anthem. Such a bravura performance from a modern R&B icon certainly reflected well on the hippest president in history, as well as helping to return Beyoncé to the public eye on her post-maternity comeback. Only one little detail may come to haunt them both: the accusation from members of her Marine Corps backing band that she was miming.

Frankly, it is hard to tell from the footage. Beyoncé performs with a great big furry microphone obscuring her mouth, but her body language is that of a singer in full flow, down to the flamboyant discarding of her in-ear monitor as she goes for the big notes. The silence from Beyoncé’s camp regarding the accusations is, at the time of writing, deafening.

Maybe she doesn’t feel she needs to justify her use of pre-recorded vocals in a live setting. After all, everybody else does it. Or at least that is sometimes how it seems. It is an increasingly common experience at so-called live gigs to find almost every element has been recorded in advance, from the backing track to the lead vocal. Indeed, in the dance pop arena, little is done any more to disguise this. Stars such as Madonna and Rihanna routinely lip-sync to pre-recorded vocals, the excuse being that otherwise they would be too out of breath to perform the extravagantly choreographed routines at the heart of their shows. The notoriously vocally challenged Britney Spears doesn’t even bother taking musicians on tour, preferring to blow her budget on dancers. The reason she prefers miming becomes obvious during the one spot where she sits down, takes a deep breath and attempts to sing, warbling weakly through a ballad, voice veering from flat to sharp with little control.

Britney is a star of the Auto-Tune generation, whose career has been hugely dependent on technology that enables any vocal to be tweaked until it is perfectly in tune. Such is Auto-Tune’s prevalence in modern pop, audiences are being trained to expect perfection, and the only way many singers can confidently deliver that is to shift the technology from studio to stage. Britney’s next album release, ironically, is Live in Miami, which may be the first live album where the only actual live bit is the audience’s applause.

We live in an age when technology is undermining the profitability of recorded music. Yet the one area of the business that’s flourishing is live events. People go to gigs to experience something you can never get on record: contact with a musician. It is the last analogue space in a digital age. Audiences would be shocked to learn how much of the live shows they are paying money to see are not really live at all.” Read more

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