At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter at all that Beyoncé, a longtime supporter of Barack Obama, didn’t perform her rendition of the national anthem live in front of 700,000 people Monday—except that it feels like such a violation of the spirit of the presidential inauguration.
According to people we spoke with yesterday, Beyoncé’s practice schedule for the Super Bowl, where she’s scheduled to perform in two weeks, did not make it possible for her to arrive in Washington early enough for a rehearsal with the Marine Corps Band.
Yes, that’s correct: Beyoncé was too busy practicing for the Super Bowl to practice for the presidential inauguration. If that’s not a perfect commentary on America’s strange priorities in the second decade of the 21st century, I don’t know what is.
Yes, the Marine Band and Beyoncé agreed in advance to play the recorded version. “It was the safest option,” the director of the band said yesterday.
Sure, every piece of music at the inauguration has a fall-back option. The “Presidents’ Own” Marine Corps Band recorded back-up versions of Kelly Clarkson’s “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” over the weekend as well, then was present on Sunday as Beyoncé recorded her national anthem track over top of a practice recording the Marine Band had already done of “The Star Spangled Banner.” These so-called “safety-track” recordings exist because there are so many variables on Inauguration Day—cold temperatures, instruments can freeze, audio problems can arise.
Four years ago, a classical quartet that included Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, used a prerecorded version of their inaugural song, “Air and Simple Gifts,” written by John Williams for the inaugural celebration. Yo-Yo Ma put soap on his bow to ensure that no sound emanated from it while he mimed playing the song to the “safety-track” after fears that the bow might snap or the piano might freeze because of how frigid it was. “It would have been a disaster if we had done it any other way,” Perlman told the New York Times afterwards. “This occasion’s got to be perfect. You can’t have any slip-ups.”
Writing four years ago after the last inaugural lip-sync performance, the Wall Street Journal’s Eric Felten, himself an accomplished musician, wrote, “The synthetic perfection of faux-live performance may enjoy an appealing gloss, but you can say the same thing about supermarket apples—and we know how good they taste. One of the main challenges of the organic food movement has been to get people to see past the scuffs and dents and blemishes of honest produce, to focus on authentic flavors.”
The worries that led to Beyoncé’s decision to forego a live performance Monday weren’t weather related; Kelly Clarkson and James Taylor both managed to perform live for their songs minutes before. The worry arose simply because Beyoncé—who is without any doubt a remarkably talented artist—hadn’t had the time necessary to practice and didn’t want to screw up on such a large stage.
But it’s that human fraility that we celebrate with the ritual of the inauguration—a ceremony fascinating precisely because of the human element, from the chief justice and the president stumbling over the oath of office to the Obama daughters mugging for the cameras to the colorful hats attendees chose.
It’s the time when our country comes together—all three branches of government arrayed on the stage along with the leaders of the armed forces and the diplomatic corps as witnesses—for the peaceful and orderly transition of democratic leadership. In his remarks, inaugural chairman Charles Schumer said, “The sacred yet cautious entrusting of power from the people to our chosen leader never fails to make our hearts beat faster.”
After all, Monday’s inauguration didn’t have to happen at all; President Obama had taken the oath the day before in private, an oath that because of the Constitution’s January 20 deadline was the one that actually was legally binding. He was already into his second term as president when he left the White House Monday morning to journey to the Capitol.
Yet the entire government, all of our leaders and the assembled diplomatic corps, went through all the pageantry associated with Monday’s inauguration—the swearing-in, the inaugural address, the luncheon, the parade—precisely because it more than any other moment represents why our nation exists and why it has endured for over two centuries as a shining beacon of democracy.
Yes, we could have had President Obama’s Sunday oath stand; yes, we could have used an iPod to play Hail to the Chief instead of the talented and colorful Marine Band. But the entire inauguration is about the symbolism—right down to the stack of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln Bibles President Obama used to be sworn in. He didn’t require any of that pomp, pageantry, or symbolism to begin his second term but we did it to demonstrate the strength and the priorities of our nation.
I know the “Star Spangled Banner” is a hard song to sing; I know it’s not popular with musicians and singers. It’s become de rigueur for artists to lip sync it at places like the Super Bowl or the World Series. But if there’s one time when the national anthem deserves to be sung live, shouldn’t it be at the presidential inauguration, on the steps of the Capitol building, staring down the National Mall, with hundreds of thousands of eager faces staring up at the hallowed ritual of democracy?
And if you can’t commit to putting in the effort to sing the national anthem live at the presidential inauguration, shouldn’t you forego the honor?
Two hundred years after the bombing of Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key, sitting in the audience Monday watching the talented musicians mimic their way through Key’s song, there was something that felt just so wrong about the “President’s Own” Marine Corps Band being reduced to mimes during the national anthem on the biggest of national stages.