After Beyonce, can reality compete?


Associated Press


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, in countless tiny ways, 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, without-the- special-sauce counterpart.

Whether Beyonce actually sang at last week’s presidential inauguration — the jury’s still out, and she’s kept silent — 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.

“I think almost everyone knows that we’re constantly being fed unreality. And yet there seems to be very little curiosity about figuring out what’s really going on,” says Vankin.

Many, including some of Beyonce’s fans and friends, consider the inauguration debate ridiculous because, after all, even if she was lip-syncing, she was doing it to her own powerful 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, skip the hassle and listen to your iPod? And second, the version of Beyonce’s voice that might be recorded in a studio — with potential help from digital enhancement and “sweetening” — could be quite different from the one produced live on a windy, wintry January day.

“Reality is complicated, messy and uncertain. We want it to be shrink-wrapped and labeled clearly,” says Mark Carnes, general editor of “Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies” and a historian at Barnard College.

It’s hardly just music. These examples of artifice in miniature pop up everywhere in American culture — so much so that we hardly even notice it.

We take it for granted that our Cheetos and Doritos are bright orange — because that’s the color that says “really cheesy” to us. We buy “movie theater butter” popcorn that has nothing to do with either movie theaters or butter.

And digital photo retouching: The tools of artifice, once accessible only to professionals, have gone democratic. Now manipulators by the millions can use something called a “clone tool” to erase blemishes, unwanted features and entire people. With the tap of a smartphone touchscreen, you can make an image taken seconds ago look like a “vintage” snapshot from a 1972 Polaroid or a 19th-century tintype.

But it is in entertainment — a realm custom-built for artifice — that this notion plays out most broadly.

In a nation already disgusted by media bias — 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? It’s a difficult thing to measure, but just consider: 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,” says Virginia Lee Blood, a musician and singer in Nashville, Tenn.

More than that, though, are we setting up unrealistic expectations about the world, piece by tiny piece?

Even Kurt Cobain, whose music was welcomed by many as a burst of show-business authenticity, struggled with the issue. In his 1994 suicide note he weighed in once more, this time about pretending to be enthusiastic on stage. “The worst crime I can think of,” Cobain wrote, “would be to rip people off by faking it.”

Of course, his band Nirvana also produced, much more famously, six words that encapsulated the era in which we live — and give us what is perhaps the ultimate verdict on this issue. “Here we are now,” he sang. “Entertain us.”

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