Be it lip-synching or doping, deception abounds. The danger is that we'll soon stop feeling outraged over this erosion in trust
Gary Younge Guardian/UK 27 January 2013
In the science fiction film The Matrix, all-powerful machines transform the planet into a huge computer simulation where humans exist only in a dream world. Among the few sentient "free" people left fighting the machines is Cypher, who abandons the struggle following a revelation: he actually prefers the simulation to reality. "I know this steak doesn't exist," he says "I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realise?" He chews the steak ostentatiously and sighs. "Ignorance is bliss."
Over the past few weeks it seems as though this dystopian future has come early. Whether it's Beyoncé lip-synching the national anthem at the presidential inauguration, British shops selling beefburgers laced with horse meat, or Lance Armstrong doping his way into the record books, what you see, taste or hear is not necessarily what you get. Authenticity and transparency, it turns out, are just two options among many. Worse still, we all too often actively collude in the deception on the grounds that the version of events that has been created for us is preferable to the truth.
These examples, it should be stressed, are not equivalent. Beyoncé mimed to the sound of her own pre-recorded voice; Armstrong broke the law, lied about it, and then choreographed his confessions; British consumers were given contaminated meat courtesy of foreign farmers, pliant retailers and lax regulations. Not all deceptions are equal; but they are all deceptions nonetheless. Indeed the only things they have in common are their brazen duplicity, contempt for the public, and the erosion in trust they engender.
Lip-synching is apparently common at big events, particularly when it's cold. What's the big deal? Well, it makes a difference. The essence of a live performance is the understanding that the audience is experiencing the event in real time and anything can happen. It is that combination of synchronicity, spontaneity and frailty that gives live performances their edge – it's the one take that matters.
But all of this would have been insignificant if we'd been told beforehand rather than having to find out. Instead we were treated to Potemkin on the Potomac: the band members pretended to play, the director pretended to conduct, Beyoncé pretended to sing, and everybody involved pretended they didn't know for several days. Lip-synching may not be a crime, but the cover-up was definitely heinous.
Our expectations are so lowered that we reckon on being lied to and those in power reckon on lying to us. Indifference and scepticism become our default positions. When beefburgers may or may not contain beef, and all feats – sporting, musical or otherwise – are discounted for doping and lip-synchs, we should be concerned.
When Beyoncé sings at the Superbowl next month, we'll wonder. The next inauguration we'll wonder. Words we thought we understood – "live", "beef", "world record" – become depleted of meaning. What we see is no longer what we get, but what we're given and what we know is only what we're told. Ignorance may be blissful, but it's still ignorance. [Abridged]