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Sing, Sing, Sing

by Paul Rapp on January 24, 2013 · 1 comment

The Internet is abuzz at the moment as to whether Beyonce lip-synched the national anthem at the inaugural. I watched it live and was stunned at the performance—it was understated and controlled, and when the somewhat impressionistic arrangement straightened out for the final stanza and Beyonce started belting, I was stunned. I wondered briefly if it was lip-synched while it was happening, but when she finished, Beyonce was staring straight ahead, motionless; then she blinked and shuddered slightly, like coming out of a trance. No way, I thought, she sang that thing. Well.

Then on Tuesday, somebody with the Marine band (who accompanied her) said that at the last minute Beyonce decided to go with a recorded track. Then it was revealed that the Marine Band’s recorded track was broadcast, but maybe Beyonce sang and maybe she didn’t. As I write this, Beyonce has released a photo of her in a recording studio holding the sheet music to the Star Spangled Banner. Which looks like an admission to me.

And the debate rages on: Was this a scandal? Is anybody surprised? Does it matter anymore? We’ve talked about lip-synching here before; last time I opined that in huge production concerts like, say Brittney Spears, boy bands, or even Gaga, the vocals are such a small part of the whole thing—the sets, the lights, the dancers, the props—that it really didn’t matter much whether the acts were pantomiming to tracks. For shows like this, people aren’t coming for the singing; they’re coming for the total experience.

I’m not sure I feel the same way about the national anthem, where the performer does nothing but stand there and sing. The vocal isn’t just an important thing—it’s just about the only thing. Apparently, most big-league national anthem performers prerecord the song just in case they lose their voice, or there’s a technical glitch, or the weather gets weird. Some just lip-synch as a matter of course. Whitney Houston’s iconic version at the 1991 Super Bowl was lip-synched, something I didn’t know until yesterday.

Most of the commentary from fellow singers has been understanding; it was cold out, not great singing weather, she could have damaged her voice, she wanted the best vocal performance possible, she hadn’t rehearsed with the Marine Band, etc. and so on. But then Kelly Clarkson and James Taylor both really sang. That doesn’t help things.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think it does matter. I wish Beyonce had sung it live. I wish I didn’t feel conned by her acting skills. But I hope she releases the recording, because no matter what, it’s one of the finest versions of the Star Spangled Banner I’ve ever heard.

Moving on. I don’t have enough room here to talk at any length about Aaron Swartz, the 24 year-old Internet genius who committed suicide just weeks before a scheduled federal trial from computer hacking, but here goes anyway. Swartz got access to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology network and downloaded millions of academic articles from the subscription site JSTOR (which were available to anyone on the network for free), apparently with the goal of “liberating” these fonts of knowledge from subscriptions, paywalls, etc. He was caught and apparently turned over all of the purloined articles, and JSTOR declined to press charges. MIT, though, encouraged the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston to indict Swartz, and they did, charging him with various felonies that had maximum penalties of 50 years in jail and some huge fines. The prosecutors leaned on Swartz to plead out, telling him that if they went to trial they’d go to the wall to put him away. Both MIT and DOJ knew that Swartz struggled with depression, but they pressed on anyway.

Upon Swartz’s suicide, MIT immediately said it was going to reevaluate how it handles situations like this. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, however, has refused to acknowledge that it has done anything wrong.

It’s hysterical that Republicans Rep. Darryl Issa and Sen. John Cronyn are calling for an investigation into the DOJ. Last I checked, these were serious law-and-order guys, from the party that constantly ups criminal penalties and passes new criminal laws that are so vague that any of us could get indicted anytime for something. This is the stuff that enabled the U.S. Attorney to stick it to Swartz so heavily.

But it’s good there’s going to be an investigation, and it’s good that there is now a serious public conversation about prosecutorial overreach, where indictments are stacked with such severe penalties that something like 97 percent of all federal cases plead out before going to trial. For a couple of decades, Blacks and Hispanics have been marched off to jail for fairly minor drug offenses for which the prosecution often had weak cases but ginned-up indictments. It’s sad it takes the death of a white geek to bring some sanity to the justice system.

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