Before you cry foul, hear me out.
On the biggest stage last night, 28.5 million of us looked on as Rihanna gave a memorable 13-minute performance where she squeezed in 12 hits and capped it all off with a pregnancy announcement. The medley felt well-paced, in part due to the visual cohesion throughout and lack of constant set-changes that sometimes can make a halftime show feel rushed.
The reviews were mixed.
One thing that did become evident throughout the performance was that Rihanna was lip-syncing, at least in parts of the performance.
She's far from the first to do so; it's commonplace for Super Bowl Halftime performers to pre-record their performance during a rehearsal to either use as a backup in case of technical difficulties, or in this instance, to deliver a high-energy dance performance while not sacrificing the vocal execution.
Patrick Baltzell has been the sound engineer behind every Super Bowl this century. In a 2018 interview with The Verge, Baltzell was asked if all performers were guilty of lip-syncing.
"...Most of the lead vocals are live. Background vocals are always pre-recorded. Most of the band is pre-recorded. The Rolling Stones was an exception in Detroit. They refused to do any backing tracks so that was all live. So we still had to push their stage out in six minutes, and then also connect it all up with actual drum mics, guitar mics, keyboard inputs, the whole thing. But Madonna, for example, was just live vocal, and everything else was tracked. Katy Perry, same thing, but even some of her vocals, the really difficult parts when she was flying, she got really nervous so she pre-recorded and we switched to that.
Ah, so you gauge on the fly when someone needs a little support.
Yes. Most of the solos, like all of Prince, his guitar playing was all live. With Springsteen the sax was live, the guitar was live. Some people just aren’t good lip-syncers and some are. Madonna is spot on, probably because she’s been doing it for so long. But some, like Bruce Springsteen, he changes the way he sings it each time he sings it. So it would be embarrassing if you had a close up of him and it didn’t match.
But do they all pre-record the vocals just in case?
Yes. We call it a protection track. We always record a protection track for the halftime lead singer and for the national anthem."
By design, you're not supposed to be able to tell what sections the performer is lip-syncing or not, obviously. By nature that makes it pretty easy to tell when there's discrepancies between what you're seeing and hearing, but conversely makes it hard to confirm if an artist is actually performing live at that moment or just really good at lip-syncing.
Rihanna may have even been singing live during some of the less-strenuous parts of her dance routine. The only thing we know for sure is that yes, the "protection track" was used.
The more important implication here is that it's not just the pop artists of late who lean on the pre-recorded tracks. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, & The Who, all thought of as groups that wouldn't need this "crutch," all used it to some degree.
Whenever a performer is accused of lip-syncing, often times people will take exception, claiming "the talent threshold for artists is lower than ever, anyone can be a pop star," or "back in my day artists really had to be talented and they sang for real," etc. Or even worse like this guy:
I won't deny there are some artists these days who may not have the raw vocal talent of a classic artist without the benefits of tuning and modern production. However, Rihanna is not in that category.
The reason lip-syncing and live Auto-Tune is even a consideration is not a matter of talent. It's a reflection of the genre, the audience expectation of a flawless performance, and the fact that it's live with no option to clean things up in post-production.
Modern songs are such that any imperfections in vocal intonation stick out like a sore thumb. Conversely, in the days before Auto-Tune, there was so much more wiggle room in a performance because there were imperfections in the original recording. I promise you, if Rihanna was performing "Carry On My Wayward Son" she'd have no trouble delivering a stellar performance. On the other hand, if the members of Kansas took a run at "We Found Love" without Auto-Tune it wouldn't sound right.
Take it from someone who manually tunes vocals all the time, the boundaries are way wider in certain genres than others. It's just "that sound."
Hard-tuning is an effect just like anything else. Reverb, delay, compression, EQ, anything you can possibly think of, it's just another technique we use to make records that sound cool or interesting. Technology affects the sound, which then influences the genre, which then has an influence on the the tech that's developed. It's a circle.
There's no need to criticize Rihanna for an industry standard. Appreciate the performance for what it was, a highly entertaining medley with cool visuals, talented dancers, TWELVE hit songs with great transitions, and an artist that didn't even need a surprise guest to keep the audience thrilled.
You can watch Rihanna's Super Bowl Halftime Show in its entirety on YouTube.