If it feels like we have a crisis of faith every year on the morning after the Super Bowl when some clever geek figures out that one or more of the performers in the pre-game or halftime were either lip synching or playing to a track, well, there’s a good reason.
Because we do. Every year. And you know why? Because a lot of the time they are. And it’s fine, because the alternative is way worse according to a man who should know.
“We expect it to be perfect,” said Rickey Minor, who served as Whitney Houston’s musical director when she pulled off what is widely considered to be the greatest Super Bowl performance of all time. And, by the way, Houston’s 1991 version of the “Star Spangled Banner” was lip synched, because Minor said that’s how you have to do it.
“Halftime and the National Anthem, ’American The Beautiful,’ dating back to before there was such a thing as pre-recording, a lot of the singers ended up having not very good performances,” he said.
Minor was no the phone with MTV News on Wednesday (February 5) to discuss why people should settle down about Red Hot Chili Peppers
bassist Flea’s admission on Tuesday that his band was pretending to play their instruments during their record-setting halftime performance at Sunday’s game.
“With the sound delay inside the stadium and all the echo and the sound bouncing off the walls, you can’t discern pitch and you can’t tell when you started and where you ended,” Minor said of the difficulty of hearing yourself and being heard in a gigantic football stadium filled with rowdy fans, including screaming ones on the field just yards from your microphones.
There’s Only One Way To Do It
Minor, who has served as the band leader on “American Idol” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and musical director for Houston, Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé, said he has no first-hand knowledge of which superstars have and haven’t plugged in at halftime over the past decade, but he does know what probably went on.
“There’s no way to prepare for the conditions [at the Super Bowl] even with all the rehearsal in the world,” he said. “The thunderous roar from the crowd who has been there since six in the morning and drinking. But mainly, during a three-minute commercial [time out] there is no way to unplug, roll all the staging out, plug back in and check every mic and every instrument and make sure they’re in the right input and working.”
Let’s say someone accidentally rolled a piece of staging over a cord and severed it. Do you want to go live to 80,000 screaming live fans and another 110 million at home or do you want to hedge your bets and have a pre-recorded track as a back up? “There’s a lot going on in the performance: synching up the lights, the video the screens and because the audience expects a lot more in this age of YouTube and the Internet … you want to see someone elevate to the moon.”
On Tuesday, Flea explained in a lengthy letter to fans that while singer Anthony Kiedis’ vocals were live, the bass, drums and guitar were not because there were only a few minutes to set up and a “zillion” things that could have gone wrong.
“There was not any room for argument on this, the NFL does not want to risk their show being botched by bad sound, period,” said Flea, an accomplished musician who noted that his band has steadfastly refused to fake it for TV for more than three decades. “The Red Hot Chili Peppers stance on any sort of miming has been that we will absolutely not do it … I spoke with many musician friends for whom I have the utmost respect, and they all said they would do it if asked, that it was a wild trippy thing to do, what the hell.”
What Are We Hearing?
Though he doesn’t know for sure, Minor said he suspected that not all the members of headliner Bruno Mars’ band were mic’d either. But what you hear in the stadium and at home depends on each performer.
When Prince tore it up in 2007 in the rain, the guitar and vocals were live from what Minor could tell. And that seemed to be the case with Bruce Springsteen in 2009 as well. In fact, Springsteen’s vocals were live, but even his hard-touring, notoriously on point E Street Band played to a track at the same game where Jennifer Hudson gorgeously lip synched the National Anthem.
“It’s a choice [to pre-record a track] but I would advise everyone to consider it because experience has taught us that you have to have a safety [track] whether you use it or not,” Minor said. “If it’s not pre-recorded and the mics are plugged in you will get a lot of the audience because they’re so loud, plus all the fans on the field yelling and screaming.”
Once In A Lifetime Chance
It’s one thing to play a show on a Tuesday in Cleveland, but the Super Bowl is a once-in-a-lifetime gig, if that, and Minor said you don’t want people coming away saying they couldn’t even hear you.
What’s different about the Super Bowl than a regular show is that you don’t come in, sound check and leave your stage in place. In fact, you sound check, the stage is disassembled into dozens of pieces and hidden in the bowels of the stadium, then rolled out lightning quick during a commercial break and re-assembled on the field. Plus, in this case, there was also the novel factor of cold weather, which has a tendency to take instruments out of tune.
According to a recent report, NFL officials and halftime producers have said that as far back as 2003 live music has been the exception rather than the rule at the big game. That means it’s likely that such legends as Paul McCartney, Prince, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Springsteen, the Who, Madonna and Queen Bey have sung along to some pre-taped tracks.
“If you could set it up and do a full concert in the stadium there would be no reason to [pre-record],” Minor said. “Because nothing’s been changed. But just connecting the stage coming in from all of the entrances and making sure the pieces are connected and, God forbid, they don’t fall apart and someone falls through the cracks … Then imagine Flea’s bass is not plugged in and he has to do the whole show without any sound. It’s enough to try to get one mic or guitar working during that break.”