With Super Bowl Sunday just around the corner, a lot of music fans are wondering: Will Katy Perry lip-sync her halftime show performance? Or will she sing live? The answer is... complicated. The surprising reality is that some of the Super Bowl's most memorable "live" performances weren't actually live: Jennifer Hudson and Faith Hill both lip-synced in 2009; the Red Hot Chili Peppers merely pretended to play their instruments on stage with Bruno Mars in 2014; and even Whitney Houston mimed her now legendary rendition of the national anthem in 1991. Wow. Believe it or not, that's just how the Super Bowl works much of the time. But why?
According to former NFL executive director Don Weiss in his 2002 book, The Making of the Super Bowl: The Inside Story of the World's Greatest Sporting Event, the league has required Super Bowl performers to pre-record their vocals for years — and the alleged reasoning behind the policy is very interesting. In 1993, shortly before he was scheduled to go on, country singer Garth Brooks reportedly refused to sing the national anthem unless the NFL agreed to air the music video for his song, "We Shall Be Free." (The clip, which was a response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, was reportedly deemed "too disturbing" for the broadcast by producers.) Brooks had not pre-recorded his vocals, and there was no back-up performer in place, leaving the NFL with no choice but to comply. Apparently, Super Bowl organizers didn't want to find themselves in a situation like that ever again.
Of course, there are other reasons to require performers to pre-record their vocals for game day: ratings are very important, and presumably, the NFL wants to ensure (as much as they possibly can, anyway) that they put on a "good" show. In 2009, pre-game show producer Ricky Minor said that lip-syncing was "the right way" to perform at the Super Bowl. He continued: "There are too many variables to go live. I would never recommend any artist go live because the slightest glitch would devastate the performance." He has a point.
But so far, aside from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I've only mentioned pre-game show performers who lip-synced or mimed — what about recent halftime show performers like Mars and Beyoncé? Did they lip-sync? It's difficult to say for certain. According to late Super Bowl audio supervisor Michael Stahl, bands can't play live during halftime shows because there isn't enough time to do line checks for each individual instrument (the crew only has three and a half minutes to set up the sound system), but I can't find any definitive word on vocals.
That being said, given what we know about the NFL's pre-recorded vocals policy (which may or may not have changed since Weiss' book was published in 2002), I'd guess that both Mars and Beyoncé sang "live-to-track" at times — which means that they sang live over pre-recorded vocals. (After Beyoncé admitted to using a pre-recorded vocal track at President Obama's 2013 inauguration, she vowed to sing live at the Super Bowl... but I have a tough time believing she was able to pull off all of that incredible choreography without at least some vocal assistance. I could be wrong, but that's my hunch.)
And that brings us back to our original question: Will Perry lip-sync her halftime show performance? I don't think so, no — not entirely. I suspect that she'll largely sing live-to-track. Perhaps her live vocals will be pitch-corrected, as well. Hey, it's no secret that Perry isn't the strongest vocalist — I can't imagine that she (or her team) wants to take any chances here.
(UPDATE: The answer as to whether or not Perry did, in fact, lip-sync during the Super Bowl halftime show? Well, again, it's complicated. Though there were flaws in her performance, which could indicate that she sang live, I do think that she used a backing track to support her vocals at least some of the time. "Firework," however, may have been sung live.)
As long as they don't do it all the time, I don't have a problem with artists lip-syncing or using pre-recorded vocals in order to ensure a strong performance — especially at an event like the Super Bowl. Think about it: there is a ridiculous amount of pressure on pre-game show performers to deliver flawless renditions of beloved songs like the national anthem. One mistake, and they'll be torn apart by the press. Meanwhile, halftime show performers are expected to hit every single note while moving across an enormous stage, dancing, and perhaps most importantly, struggling to hear themselves over the deafening roar of the crowd. Is that fair? Is that realistic? Personally, I think it's OK for Super Bowl performers to get a little help.
Super Bowl XLIX airs on Sunday, Feb. 1 on NBC.
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