When Justin Timberlake takes the Grammy stage on Sunday night to perform a song from his first new album in seven years, for many viewers the important thing won’t be the actual words he’s singing but whether, in fact, he is actually singing those words.

Despite the Grammy Awards' official no lip syncing policy, every year following an artist’s performance the accusations pour in on social media and in online comments. In 2012, nobody believed Pink, dangling upside down and dripping with water, could hit every note so perfectly (turns out she could), or that Chris Brown could jump around on a Q-Bert stage and still manage to have enough breath to sing “Turn up the Music” (turns out he couldn’t).

Yuval Taylor, the co-author of Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, chalks it up to a "question of misrepresentation. You’re representing yourself as performing but you’re not. You’re doing one thing but you’re actually doing something else,” he says.

Audiences tend to get upset when an artist lip syncs because “it’s the most basic form of inauthenticity — it’s lying,” he says.

This year, there’s an added pressure for authentic performances from artists because it follows Beyoncé’s now infamous lip syncing of the American national anthem at U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration three weeks ago. Despite the fact that she silenced critics by performing a powerful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” a cappella at a pre-Super Bowl press conference, the initial reaction only serves to highlight just how little tolerance audiences have for the practice.

Jewel, the singer-songwriter who found herself in a similar controversy when she was caught lip syncing the U.S. national anthem at the Super Bowl in 1998, says there’s a big difference between “someone passing themselves off as a singer but who can’t actually sing without Auto-Tune, and someone who can actually sing. I’m surprised that people were as up in arms about Beyoncé as they were, because everyone knows she can sing and is a fantastic talent.”  

So are audience expectations for an authentic performance unrealistic? Ken McLeod, a professor of music at the University of Toronto, thinks so.

“Ever since the invention of the microphone, vocal performances have been enhanced, but most people don’t understand that,” he says. “Nobody wants to believe that their favourite artists are lip syncing, but at this point, to even talk about authenticity in popular music, it’s a ridiculous word; it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

For further proof, just ask Michael Abbott, the longtime audio director of the Grammys, who seemed to make it a matter of semantics in an interview he did with Broadcast Engineering magazine last year.

"The Grammys are committed to having every microphone on stage be live. That dates back to the Milli Vanilli controversy,” he said, referencing the former duo's 1990 performance. Although he was careful to add a slight disclaimer: “While we don’t allow lip-sync on the show, some performances are so demanding in terms of sound design that there has to be some of what we call track augmentation.”

In other words,when Timberlake performs a song from his upcoming album, The 20/20 Experience, it's understandable if viewers want to pay a little more attention than usual.

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posted by Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Feb 08, 2013