After Beyonce, a question: Can reality compete?
PITTSBURGH — The breathtaking model on your magazine cover: Of course she’s not that thin and unblemished. That reality show you never miss? You’re shocked — shocked that its real-life drama isn’t 100 percent unscripted. And that diva who may or may not have mouthed the words to the national anthem to her own prerecorded voice? Yeah, well, so what? It was a big moment, and she wanted to sound her best.
In America these days, much of what we see and experience isn’t exactly what it seems. We know it, too. And often we don’t care, because what we’re getting just seems to “pop” more than its garden-variety counterpart.
Whether Beyonce actually sang at last week’s presidential inauguration is, on the surface, the textbook teapot tempest. Dig deeper, though, and the conversation — or lack of it — reveals something important about society at this moment. The big question is no longer whether reality matters. That ship sailed long ago. More to the point is this: Can reality compete?
“It’s as if the fakery has become satisfactory,” says Jonathan Vankin, co-writer of “Forever Dusty,” a musical that takes events from the life of the late soul singer Dusty Springfield and — carefully — dramatizes them.
Many consider the inauguration debate ridiculous because, after all, even if she was lip-syncing she was doing it to her own voice. Fair enough.
That ignores, however, two aspects of live performance. First is what some consider an implicit contract between a performer and a live audience — the expectation that the audience deserves a performance that’s in the moment and that might, just might, even be affected by the presence of the crowd. If none of that happens, then why not stay home and listen to your iPod? And second, the version of Beyonce’s voice that might be recorded in a studio could be quite different from the one produced live on a windy January day.
“Reality is complicated, messy, and uncertain. We want it to be shrink-wrapped and labeled clearly,” said Mark Carnes, general editor of “Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies” and a historian at Barnard College.
It’s hardly just music. We take it for granted that Cheetos and Doritos are bright orange, because that’s the color that says “really cheesy” to us. We buy Yankee Candles called “Home Sweet Home” that evoke “a heartwarming blend of cinnamon, baking spices and a hint of freshly poured tea” — even if we have no intention of doing any baking or brewing.
And digital photo retouching: The tools of artifice, once accessible only to professionals, have gone democratic.
A September Gallup poll showed 60 percent of Americans have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news accurately and fairly — does this stuff that dances at the edges have any effect in the long run? If little things in life aren’t what they seem, how well does that bode for our society?
“Maybe, just maybe, we’re all a little tired of being tricked, be it great trickery or be it small trickery,” said Virginia Lee Blood, a musician and singer in Nashville, Tenn.