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After Beyonce, a question: Can reality compete?

Monday - 1/28/2013, 5:16pm  ET

FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama as Beyonce sings the national anthem at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington. Whether Beyonce actually sang at the inauguration is a tempest in a teapot, but dig deeper and it reveals something about American society at this moment. In small ways, we seem to be constantly learning that the things we see and experience aren't exactly what they're billed to be _ and that we may not care all that much. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, file)

TED ANTHONY
AP National Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- 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, who has also written extensively about how real historical events are represented in fictional settings.

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. "We prefer the crisp clarity of sound bites and slogans to the blaring cacophony of the world around us."

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 purchase 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 whatsoever. We buy "movie theater butter" popcorn that has nothing to do with either movie theaters or butter.

Fundraisers sending out bulk mail now commonly use envelopes shaped like personal greeting cards and do their utmost to make the address look like it's handwritten expressly to you, sometimes even adding "personal notes" that are "written" diagonally across the back. And at Walt Disney World, ground zero of artifice, you can go for a "Caribbean" vacation or a visit to "Morocco" without ever encountering the inconvenient realities of the actual locations such as, say, upset stomachs and poor people.

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. A few years back, HP even came out with a camera that had a "slimming feature," allowing you to choose just how much girth you wanted to remove for Facebook or the family album.

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

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