After Beyonce, a question: Can reality compete?
Consider Mike Daisey, the performer who blends journalism and monologue into a compelling hybrid that he used last year in a show about uncovering Apple’s business practices in China. Trouble was, when he took it to ‘‘This American Life’’ and the national airwaves, some of his ‘‘research’’ in China didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Some things he described hadn’t happened; others had happened, but not as he recounted them. Did he have a responsibility to tell the truth, or was his a dramatic performance with understandable artistic license?
‘‘I'm not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,’’ Daisey said on a ‘‘This American Life’’ follow-up about his rearranging of the facts.
Even the sordid saga of Lance Armstrong, which might seem to share little with the inaugural singing question, can teach us something. Sure, the main issues are that he doped, cheated and intimidated those who would have exposed him. But he, too, offered a not-quite-real public performance that, when you pull back the curtain, broke an implicit contract with his audience.
In a nation already disgusted by media bias — a September Gallup poll showed 60 percent of Americans have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news accurately and fairly — does this stuff that dances at the edges have any effect in the long run? It’s a difficult thing to measure, but just consider: If little things in life aren’t what they seem, how well does that bode for our society?
‘‘Maybe, just maybe, we’re all a little tired of being tricked, be it great trickery or be it small trickery,’’ says Virginia Lee Blood, a musician and singer in Nashville, Tenn.
More than that, though, are we setting up unrealistic expectations about the world, piece by tiny piece? How could that boring slice of real cheese be any good if it’s not bright orange and doesn’t ‘‘pop’’ with artificial Cheetos flavor? How can you be satisfied with your romantic partner when every smidgen of media in the checkout line hands you ridiculously unattainable images of human perfection? And how can you persuade a young girl who wants to grow up to sing like Beyonce that, yes, with practice and hard work she might belt out the national anthem at the inauguration or sing in a Super Bowl halftime show one day — if such performances turn out to be not entirely what they seem?
Even Kurt Cobain, whose music was welcomed by many as a burst of show-business authenticity, struggled with the issue. In his 1994 suicide note he weighed in once more, this time about pretending to be enthusiastic on stage. ‘‘The worst crime I can think of,’’ Cobain wrote, ‘‘would be to rip people off by faking it.’’
Of course, his band Nirvana also produced, much more famously, six words that encapsulated the era in which we live — and give us what is perhaps the ultimate verdict on this issue. ‘‘Here we are now,’’ he sang. ‘‘Entertain us.’’
EDITOR'S NOTE — Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted