In the science fiction film The Matrix, all-powerful machines transform the planet into a huge computer simulation where humans exist only in a dream world. Among the few sentient “free” people left fighting the machines is Cypher, who abandons the struggle following a revelation: He prefers the simulation to reality.
“I know this steak doesn’t exist,” he said. “I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?”
He chews the steak ostentatiously and sighs: “Ignorance is bliss.”
Over the past few weeks, it seems as though this dystopian future has come early and Cypher would fit right in. Whether it is Beyonce lip-synching the US’ national anthem at US President Barack Obama’s inauguration, British shops selling beef burgers laced with horse meat, or Lance Armstrong doping his way into the record books, what you see, taste or hear is not necessarily what you get.
These moments of deception go beyond sport and showbusiness — they are emblematic of a culture where marketing trumps substance, cynicism triumphs over sincerity, and what is fake is openly and actively promoted over what is true.
JUST ANOTHER OPTION?
It turns out that authenticity and transparency are just two options among many. Worse still, we all too often actively collude in the deception on the grounds that the version of events that has been curated for us is preferable to the truth.
It should be stressed that these examples are not equivalent: Beyonce mimed to the sound of her own pre-recorded voice; Armstrong broke the law, lied about it and then choreographed his confession; British consumers were given contaminated meat courtesy of foreign farmers, pliant retailers and lax regulations.
Nor are any, individually, the source of moral panic, not while there is bombing in Mali and a civil war in Syria. These incidences may have left many upset — but none dead. Even the health implications of the burger scare should be put into perspective. Worse things have long made their way into the food chain with nary an outcry — as Eric Schlosser pointed out in 2001 in Fast Food Nation: “There’s shit in the meat.”
Not all deceptions are equal, but they are all deceptions nonetheless. The only things they have in common are their brazen duplicity, contempt for the public and the erosion in trust they engender.
Take Beyonce. Lip-synching is apparently common at big events, particularly when it is cold, as that can harshly affect the voice. She recorded the anthem days earlier (a safety track is routine for inaugurations) and used it because she arrived too late to rehearse with the US Marine Corps band. The recording of her voice was then married to the recording of the band. What is the big deal?
LIVE DOES MATTER
Well, it makes a difference. If it was as much of an honor to be performing at the inauguration as Beyonce claimed, she might have found time to rehearse at least once. Moreover, the essence of a live performance is the understanding that the audience is experiencing the event in real time and anything can happen. It is that combination of synchronicity, spontaneity and frailty that gives live performances their edge — it is the one take that matters.
“It’s always hard for a guitar player to play when it’s cold because your hands sort of stiffen up and you know nerves tend to do that to you anyway,” said James Taylor, who played live at the inauguration. “So I was very relieved to have gotten to it without any major train wrecks.”