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.”
Beyonce’s talent is beyond doubt — what we will never see is her ability to rise to that particular occasion.
“The synthetic perfection of faux-live performance may enjoy an appealing gloss,” the Wall Street Journal’s Eric Felten said after the 2009 inauguration. “But you can say the same thing about supermarket apples — and we know how good they taste. One of the main challenges of the organic food movement has been to get people to see past the scuffs and dents and blemishes of honest produce, to focus on authentic flavors.”
Yet all of this would have been insignificant if we had been told beforehand rather than finding out afterward. Instead, on the US Capitol steps, the band members pretended to play, the director pretended to conduct, Beyonce pretended to sing and everybody involved pretended they did not know for several days. Lip-synching may not be a crime, but the cover-up was definitely heinous.
So while too much can be made of it — it is not a metaphor for how the US got into Iraq or, as some conservatives claimed, Obama’s record — it is more troubling how nonchalantly some shrugged it off. Also, there is considerable danger in making light of it, for these skills are transferable.
Clem Whitaker, the co-founder of the US’ first political consulting firm, once said that there are two ways to interest the average American in a political campaign: put on a fight or a show.
“So if you can’t fight, put on a show, and if you put on a good show, Mr and Mrs America will turn out to see it,” Whitaker said.
Civil rights leader and cable television host Al Sharpton hailed Beyonce miming as “the patriotic thing to do,” while CNN’s Anderson Cooper, whose catchphrase is “keeping ’em honest,” said: “It is Beyonce’s world and we are just living in it.”
Our expectations are so lowered that we reckon on being lied to and those in power reckon on lying to us. The only issue left is how much they can get away with it.
“At the end of the day, does the audience really care if they get a good show?” Bertram van Munster, executive producer of US reality show The Amazing Race, told USA Today last week in reference to docusoaps.
However, the audience should, lest indifference and skepticism become our default positions. When beef burgers may or may not contain beef and all feats — sporting, musical or otherwise — are discounted for doping and lip-synchs, we should be concerned.
When Beyonce sings at the Superbowl next month, we will wonder. At the next inauguration, we will wonder. Words we thought we understood — “live,” “beef,” “world record” — become depleted of meaning. What we see is no longer what we get, but what we are given, and what we know is only what we are told. Ignorance may be blissful, but it is still ignorance.