The uproar following the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cameo appearance with Bruno Mars during this year’s Super Bowl halftime show was considerable. It also was a little bit hilarious, a tad frustrating and a whole lot ill-informed.
Many viewers cried foul when it became obvious that Chili Peppers bassist Flea and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer were flailing with animated abandon at a bass and guitar, respectively, that didn’t appear to be plugged into anything at all. Oh, the shock! The horror! The Peppers were miming!
Amid all of this hoopla, few bothered to notice that the majority of Bruno Mars’ band was doing the same thing. You see, folks, miming during high-profile telecasts is not the sole purview of aging alt-funk-metal freaks. Pretty much everyone does it.
The outpouring of absurd outrage prompted Flea to post an open letter a few days after the halftime show, explaining what should have been obvious to anyone watching while the Peppers treated their guest appearance as an opportunity to go nuts and parody the very fact that they were aping their own performance.
“When we were asked by the NFL and Bruno (Mars) to play our song ‘Give It Away’ at the Super Bowl, it was made clear to us that the vocals would be live, but the bass, drums and guitar would be prerecorded,” Flea wrote. “I understand the NFL’s stance on this, given they only have a few minutes to set up the stage [and] there are a zillion things that could go wrong and ruin the sound for the folks watching in the stadium and the TV viewers.”
The pressures are considerable for producers who are faced with the task of running a 12-minute segment that attempts to cram in as much visual excitement as one might normally witness spread across the span of a two-hour show. There can be no second take. If someone’s equipment goes on the fritz, there will be no time to address the issue. Live television feeds are a nightmare for sound engineers, as anyone who routinely watches in-the-moment music broadcasts has likely noticed. Even if the band is performing very well, what comes out of the speakers and into the living rooms of viewers is an awful mix, more often than not.
That’s not the heart of the matter here, though. The real issue is the increased reliance on technology to aid performers in their quest to attain recording studio-level perfection on the concert stage.
The genuine human interaction that takes place between musicians when they are performing together in real time; the risk factor that comes along with live performance; the ability of the musicians to rise to the occasion and deliver their best, or not; the imperfections that make us real, human, fallible and, thus, able to make a human connection with listeners and viewers – these are now routinely being sacrificed at the altar of “perfection.” Someone took our rock ’n’ roll, our soul, funk and R&B, our whatever you want to call it, airbrushed it, gave it a few nips and tucks and, in the process, made it homogenous.
Miming, lip-synching and singing along with prerecorded tracks are not really the exception to the rule any longer – they’re the rule, particularly in pop music of the sort that is assembled with clinical precision in the recording studio. This is different than seeing a band mime along to its current hit on Britain’s “Top of the Pops” or its American equivalents from the 1970s and ’80s, such as the “Midnight Special,” “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” and the like. When bands mimed on those shows, it always was glaringly obvious, and no one was attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of the viewer.
However, when you watch “Saturday Night Live,” for which artists have always performed live, and catch Eminem making Eminem-like noises when the microphone is nowhere near his mouth or Ashley Simpson having a meltdown when her prerecorded track malfunctions, you know that things have changed a bit.
Is it simply laziness and lack of discipline on the part of performers? A victory of technology over the human beings who are meant to employ that technology toward a greater human good, but all too often take the low road? Do those who are making these kinds of decisions simply think we are too stupid to notice?
Or is our conception of music beginning to mirror our conception of physical beauty? Maybe perfect really isn’t so perfect after all.