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
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
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