Published on February 8th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant


The Superbowl, Lip-synching, and The Emperor’s New Clothes

I’m not a real Superbowl watching kind of guy, but I tuned in for a few minutes, catching Bruno Mars and The Red Hot Chili Peppers doing the halftime show.  I like to think of myself as a pretty good judge of who is or isn’t lip-synching, and I was pleasantly surprised to note that they seemed to be throwing it down live.  In a rare display of overt positivity, I tweeted that it was cool to see the acts were actually singing, to which some people responded by arguing that they weren’t.  Turns out I was only half right.  Sure, Anthony Kiedis from the Peppers (and I assume Mars) was actually singing, but someone on ye olde Interweb noticed that Flea’s bass was unplugged.  After quick volleys of discussions about wireless rigs, Flea came right out and admitted in an open letter that the band themselves had been faking it.

Crawling out from under some weird rock, Axl Rose weighed in: “Maybe sometime before their actual performance, rather than use a guitar cord or standard wireless, in the name of science and for all mankind, Flea courageously had a newly invented breakthrough in microchip technology installed in his ass that picked up the frequencies of his bass and transmitted them to his amplifier … Maybe they all had microchips installed in their asses and not only pick up the frequencies of their instruments but get DirectTV (sic) and the internet (sic) too!”

I’m not coming down on the Chili Peppers like Rose; after all, they made a decision in the 80s to never air band it, and this was the first time they’ve broken their internal pact.  “[Playing the Superbowl] was a surreal-like, once in a lifetime crazy thing to do and we [decided we] would just have fun and do it,” explained Flea.  So, I applaud Flea for his honesty, and I don’t hate the playa, but I really do hate the game.

As far as I’m concerned, real musicians don’t lip-synch at live shows.  My colleague, excellent International metal writer and occasional Feedback Society contributor, Adrien Begrand, commented to me that this opinion was getting dangerously close to being ‘rockist.’  While I’m definitely landing on snobby or pretentious ground, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s rockist, at least in my case, though it would certainly be for some people.  I’m not trying to say there’s no merit in some Top 40 music (where lip synching is most prevalent) or that there’s not awesome spectacle in a Beyonce concert.  I like a lot of different music, some of it popular and mainstream, some not.  When she’s actually singing, Beyonce is damn talented.

What I am saying, is that if you go to a music concert to see an artist perform, then they should actually be performing.  A lot of Top 40 artists lip synch because they have crazy dance moves choreographed, and I get that.  But that’s not really a music concert, is it?  It’s more of a dance recital.  With lasers.

“I understand the NFL’s stance on this,” said Flea, “given they only have a few minutes to set up the stage, there a zillion things that could go wrong and ruin the sound for the folks watching in the stadium and the TV viewers. There was not any room for argument on this, the NFL does not want to risk their show being botched by bad sound, period.”

See, here’s where it gets sticky.  I get that the Superbowl is a huge pop culture event, and I don’t want to tell them how to run their shit.  They’ve done smashingly well without my moronic input.  But we have to at least admit, together, that when someone is lip-synching, the Emperor has no clothes.  Seriously, isn’t it weird that we’d buy tickets to go sit in a room and watch someone mime along to sounds, as opposed to watching them pour their hearts into singing their songs?  Are aliens watching from afar and scratching their heads at us?

“What an amazing artist!  What an amazing performance!” we clap and cheer.  We line the street to see the Emperor’s procession pass.  But almost literally anyone, regardless of talent, could perform by lip-synching.  Hell, I played a Judas Priest song in an air band contest when I was in elementary school.  We totally rocked.  But it wasn’t playing music.

And even if the Superbowl wants to hide behind excuses, let’s just set them aside for a sec; this isn’t really about the Superbowl for me, it’s just about lip synching in general.  If faking it only happens because of audio concerns on TV as some people besides Flea have asserted online, then why do some artists play live on shows like Saturday Night Live, while some fake it?  There’s clearly a divide between artists that focus on their musicianship and those who are all smoke and mirrors live.

Again, I’m not attacking any genre here, but performers that rely on lip synching are not musicians — at best, they are art/music/dance installations and at the worst, they are characters in marketing campaigns; Ashley Simpson is a jigging Geico Gecko.  I don’t fault someone for not writing their own music; some people are good singers and not good writers.  But, if like some artists, they’re not writing the music, they’re using autotune in the studio to create the performance, and they’re not really belting it out live — then what exactly are they doing?  How are they musicians?  A celebrity and a performer, sure.  But not a musician or singer.  They’re dancing around to a tape with a cardboard guitar like kids at an air band competition.  Which leaves us, as the audience, either fooled completely or paying money to pretend we’re seeing someone sing.

Let me reel myself back in — I don’t care if they keep doing the Superbowl this way.  They’re building a marketing spectacle, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But there is something wrong with us treating it like a musical institution.  Oohing and aahing over ‘who’ll be playing this year’ when in reality, no one will be ‘playing.’  Whether in the Superbowl, on shows like SNL, or in live concerts, we should quit giving lip-synch performances any musical credibility.  We have to stop pretending that it’s real, live music.  We have to stop pretending that the Emperor is wearing clothes.

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is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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