Last week, the Times reported that Beyonce lip-synched her way through a stirring rendition of the national anthem at Barack Obama's second presidential inauguration. Social media sites pulsed with activity as fans of the singer debated the significance of the fact that the diva might well have hit her high notes days earlier in the controlled and comfortable surroundings of a recording studio.
To be fair, it's not as though Beyonce passed off a voice that was not her own. Unlike the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, where Lin Miaoke mimed a song pre-recorded by Yang Peiyi because the latter was not deemed cute enough to be presented on camera, Beyonce mimed herself. This being the case it's hard to see what all the fuss is about. She sang magnificently. Why should it matter if she preformed the piece live or had it pre-recorded? Why should we care?
Many have suggested that it is an issue of honesty. Some say they would have been happy had the singer been upfront about lip-synching. It's the feeling of being duped that has upset so many people. This might be the case, but I think there is a deeper element that no one has yet identified and that is the insidious tendency for people of all sorts, and especially leaders to avoid personal risk-taking.
One of the reasons election campaigns are so dull -- to anyone with a modicum of intelligence -- is because candidates will not tell you what they really think. It is much safer to waffle and hedge than it is to come out clearly with one's deepest held convictions, especially when those convictions sit uneasily with data from focus groups and polls. As a result, candidates who have been media managed to within an inch of their lives go on repeating the same vacuous sound-bites for months on end. And things don't get any better when they are in office. I have lost count of the times I switch off the morning radio in frustration after listening to yet another politician evade pertinent questions raised by an interviewer because s/he is too frightened to say what s/he really believes.
Depending on the context risk taking can sometimes be foolish or outright dangerous. We teach our children not to take unnecessary risks with health and safety. We try to educate them to eat healthily, to look both ways before crossing a road, to wear a seat belt. But we also want them to appreciate that some of the most rewarding things in life cannot be achieved without taking risks. Take for example something as simple as an apology. The basic dynamic of apologizing involves an element of risk. When I apologize to you and ask for forgiveness, I have no prior guarantee that you will accept my apology and forgive me. I stand vulnerable, and it could be argued that it is precisely that vulnerability that redresses the balance of power and enables you to forgive me. I recall when my son was younger he refused to apologize to his brother unless he knew in advance that his brother would forgive him. I tried explaining that if he could be certain of the outcome it wouldn't be an apology.
On a larger scale, getting married, having children, taking a challenging job all require elements of risk. Yet with notable exceptions we seem to be more risk averse than ever. The thrill of proposing to someone you love is partly to do with the fact that you are prepared to make a commitment even though you have no guarantee as to how things will play out in the future. It is precisely the risk -- however slight -- involved that makes a declaration of love such as this so authentic. I have met many young couples who live together for years before deciding to commit to each other because they are afraid of taking any chances. For some, even the marriage proposal (when it finally comes) is planned out weeks in advance so as to leave nothing to chance. Such contrived declarations of commitment lack the frisson that ought to accompany a young couple embarking on the exciting and somewhat uncertain journey of life together.
Perhaps so many people were disappointed with Beyonce because they saw a beautiful and talented artist at the height of her powers afraid of taking a risk. What made her performance so spectacular was the assumption (before we learned the truth) that she pushed her voice to reach notes higher than ever expected. That while she could have played it safe and still sounded spectacular she supposedly pushed herself beyond her comfort zone and did so live in front of millions. Such risk taking earned our respect which rapidly eroded after learning it was a pre- recording.
It's more than a little coincidental that this great drama played itself out against the backdrop of the greatest political theatre; a presidential inauguration. If there is a message in this, it's for all politicians to stop saying what they think people want to hear and to take the risk of saying what they believe people ought to hear. Only in this way can we hope to have an authentic and honest conversation about the nation's deepest concerns, fears, hopes and dreams.