Beyonce looked like she stepped off from the recent air-brushed perfection of her GQ magazine cover, danced like a junior Tina Turner and generally owned her 12 minutes on a worldwide stage Sunday like few Super Bowl performers ever have.
But there were a few nagging questions: Was she live or was she canned? Or perhaps more to the point: Did it matter?
Beyonce’s performance had the lip-sync police out in force. The pop star fessed up to singing with a backing tape at the presidential inauguration a few weeks ago, but that should come as no surprise. Canned performances have been business as usual at Super Bowl-sized events for decades. For most performers, the question isn’t whether to use a backing tape, but whether to sing into an open microphone while the tape serves as a kind of aural safety net.
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Sound engineers note that the entire performance has to be set up in six minutes at halftime, with no guarantees that the singer will be able to hear herself or that there will be technical glitches that compromise the performance. Most artists are in it strictly to look and sound good anyway. They don’t view it as a “performance” so much as a way to promote product to more than 100 million TV viewers; in Beyonce’s case, it was a free ad for her recent reunion and greatest hits album with Destiny’s Child.
And, wow, guess what? There she was with her Destiny Child companions Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams! Williams coyly said there was nothing to the reunion rumors a few years ago, citing her commitment to appear in a touring version of the Broadway play “Fela!,” but miraculously she found a way to clear her schedule just in time.
The leather-clad trio looked like a walking, strutting advertisement for a dominatrix-boutique franchise. But Rowland and Williams came off as Beyonce’s backing band, dutifully singing harmonies on one of the singer’s biggest solo singles, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." Her Destiny’s Child accomplices were part of a huge ensemble of dancers and musicians that appeared to consist entirely of women.
Otherwise, it was the high-heeled Beyonce stomping her imprint on libidos everywhere: the silhouetted opening countoff into “Crazy in Love,” topped with a firecracker-spewing guitar solo; the Jamaican dancehall flavor of “Baby Boy”; the closing, signature ballad “Halo.” On the latter, the close-up TV images suggested that the singer was indeed belting it out, at least semi-“live.” But by then the verdict was already in: Beyonce affirmed that she’s the reigning all-purpose multimedia celebrity of our era, and she knows how to entertain.
The musical prelude to the game was relatively low-key in comparison. Marvin Gaye gave one of the longest and most celebrated versions of the National Anthem at a sporting event ever in 1983 at the NBA All-Star Game. But at 2:40, Alicia Keys went six seconds longer than Gaye in her interpretation before Sunday's kickoff.
Seated at a white grand piano, Keys offered a blues and jazz-tinged version of the technically demanding song. Like Gaye, she made the song seem fragile, even poignant, the intimacy undercutting any threat of the showboating that sank Christina Aguilera’s interpretation two years ago. There are many ways to perform the anthem – Kelly Clarkson belted out a concise, fat-free version in 1:34 at last year’s Super Bowl. But Keys certainly delivered one of the best of recent vintage.
Its tone was appropriate given what preceded it: Jennifer Hudson’s “America the Beautiful.” The singer gave a dignified reading, but the focus was deservedly on her smiling choir: 26 white-shirted, beribboned students from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the scene of a mass murder last year that claimed 26 lives. Hudson herself has been a victim of gun violence; her performance of the National Anthem at the 2009 Super Bowl came only months after her mother, brother and nephew were killled in their Englewood home in Chicago.