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, 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 Beyoncé 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, author 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 touch screen, 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.
Consider Mike Daisey, the performer who blends journalism and monologue into a compelling hybrid that he used last year in a show about uncovering Apple's business practices in China. Trouble was, when he took it to "This American Life" and the national airwaves, some of his "research" in China didn't hold up to scrutiny. Some things he described hadn't happened; others had happened, but not as he recounted them. Did he have a responsibility to tell the truth, or was his a dramatic performance with understandable artistic license?
"I'm not going to say that I didn't take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard," Daisey said on a "This American Life" follow-up about his rearranging of the facts.
Even the sordid saga of Lance Armstrong, which might seem to share little with the inaugural singing question, can teach us something. Sure, the main issues are that he doped, cheated and intimidated those who would have exposed him. But he, too, offered a not-quite-real public performance that, when you pull back the curtain, broke an implicit contract with his audience.
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? How could that boring slice of real cheese be any good if it's not bright orange and doesn't "pop" with artificial Cheetos flavor? How can you be satisfied with your romantic partner when every smidgen of media in the checkout line hands you ridiculously unattainable images of human perfection? And how can you persuade a young girl who wants to grow up to sing like Beyoncé that, yes, with practice and hard work she might belt out the national anthem one day at a major public event -- if that performance turns out to be not entirely what it seemed?
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 onstage. "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."