At this point, I am resigned to being one of the last people on earth who still believes that when a live performance is advertised, we should get a live performance. Clearly nobody in the Obama Administration believes it, because for the second straight inauguration ceremony, a featured musical presentation introduced as a live performance was actually an elaborate fake. I was initially impressed that Beyoncé could sing The National Anthem so well live and in the open air—not quite Whitney, but still excellent. I’m not so impressed that she could do it in a studio, with sound balancing, multiple takes and editing. It does make a difference, you know.
I also assume I’m one of the last citizens who finds the beginning of new Presidential term being launched with a lie both symbolic and disappointing. Everybody does it, who is hurt, it’s trivial, things have changed…I know. Lots of rationalizations fit. I don’t care. Some things should be genuine and trustworthy, and the President’s inauguration is one of them.
Thus here again, slightly edited, is my protest against this deception in 2009, after the first time the American public was faked out. Looking back on what I wrote, and what the Obama Administration turned out to be, it really was symbolic after all. So it is this time around. It’s just not as much of a surprise.
“Why are there American citizens who stubbornly maintain that Neil Armstrong’s moon landing was faked? Why is cynicism becoming a crippling national malady? Look no further for the answer than the inaugural ceremonies of Barack Obama, where a U.S. Senator and a quartet of great musicians couldn’t bring themselves to avoid artifice and deception on the day America displays its democracy to the world.
“There were reasons, of course. There are always reasons for lying. The weather was too cold for the instruments, and the virtuosos Ma, Perlman, Montero and McGill feared that their rendition of a blah John Williams-arranged pastiche called “Air and Simple Gifts” would be out of tune. So they had a recording ready, and it was the recording of the four that was heard by the television audience around the country and the world, as well as the millions of assembled to see the ceremony in person.
“Senator Diane Feinstein, handling the introductions for the day, laid the groundwork for the fakery by introducing the performance as if it would be live. It all went off without a hitch. Three days later, everyone came clean: what was “played” was a recording. Just like Ashlee Simpson, who was pilloried for lip-synching on “Saturday Night Live.” Just like Milli Vanilli, the infamous band that was run off the record charts forever presenting other singers’ voices as their own.
“But hey, that was entertainment. This is just the inauguration of the President of the United States. You know…the one who is going to change the culture of secrecy, deceit and lies in government.
“I know what people are going to say: “Big deal. Who cares?” It’s just a piece of music, and a bunch of long-hairs were afraid of becoming the classical equivalents of Robert Goulet, botching the National Anthem while being broadcast to the world. But it wasn’t just another musical performance, was it? The performance was part of the swearing-in ceremony of President Barack Obama, and that meant that it could not, should not, must not be phony, faked, or a lie. I don’t buy the story being peddled by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, whose spokesperson claimed, in revealing the scam, that the musicians were “very insistent on playing live until it became clear that it would be too cold.” Baloney. This wasn’t April, after all. It was late January, and the weather in D.C. had been hovering at or below freezing for a week. Everyone with a TV, a car or a thermometer knew that a quartet including string instruments wouldn’t work, not to mention that it is hard to play the violin, cello and piano in mittens. The musicians had the recording prepared, cued up, and ready.
“This was the plan all along: Fool everybody. The important thing, after all, was to make sure everything went perfectly. Next time, maybe we should try an audio-animatronic Chief Justice who won’t screw up the oath of office. Perhaps the president should lip-synch pre-recorded responses, just to be on the safe side. Or have a double stand in for the President during the ceremony…you know, for security purposes. Maybe we should have the inauguration produced in a studio against a green screen, so nobody has to be cold at all.
Just like the moon landing.
“No. This wasn’t just a quartet of musicians. Their performance was part of a sacred American tradition that evokes the best in our history and values. This was a ceremony that was supposed to symbolize, as it always should symbolize, hope, honor, freedom, public service, and American idealism. It was wrong, terribly wrong, to begin the next four years with one more casual blurring of reality because lying is easier than accepting consequences. The message of this administration was supposed to be that lying is not acceptable. If you are willing to applaud for live performances that aren’t live, fine: enjoy your Milli Vanilli. A United States presidency is not a musical performance, and must establish a higher standard than that.
“It would have been wonderful, refreshing, and, yes, symbolic, if Sen. Feinstein had said, “We had hoped to have a live performance by Yo-Yo Ma, Izhak Perlman, Gabriella Montero and Anthony McGill today, but unfortunately, the cold will not allow their instruments to play in tune. So here is a recording of a special selection John Williams composed for the occasion, as these wonderful musicians played it in a studio.”
What’s that I hear? The truth!
The sweetest sound of all.”
UPDATE: It’s hardly even worth giving links to this story, because it has been thoroughly muddled by reversals, spin, and denials. Initially a member of the Marine band revealed he was faking, that the Marine band and Beyonce were miming it all. Then someone in the high command told him to recant, then the spin started. The official line now is that the Band doesn’t know if she was singing or not, which seems unlikely to me. As far as I’m concerned, after the previous inauguration, the burden of proof is on the singer and whoever was in charge of this part of the program to show she was singing.