I don't really care whether or not Beyonce lip-synched the National Antrhem, so much as I am fascinated by why a fairly modest, unsurprising decision redounded so badly for her. And I think the problem is twofold, and intertwined: a failure to be frank and up front, and a desire to preserve an unrealistic illusion.
Beyonce Knowles is a curious kind of star, at least for me; though she's obviously quite talented, her success has a lot to do with a long term, carefully managed strategy dating back to her childhood. Very little, ever, was left to chance. Destiny's Child (which is, literally, a description of her) went through several iterations before the carefully managed combination of Beyonce, Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland became the standard bearers. And even then, this was never a fantasy of Supremes like equality before Diana Ross got pulled forward. The ultimate goal, always, was solo stardom for the lead.
The notion of carefully controlled image, of carefully managed impressions, tends to dog Beyonce constantly. The internet rumors that her pregnancy was faked or stage managed, the presentation of her marriage, the ups and downs of her acting and singing careers... always there's this dissonant sense of what's real and what's "faked", and how to square the public presentation with overheard, "private" impressions.
The first thing that flashed in my head when suggestions of Beyonce's lip-synch surfaced was of Whitney Houston, naturally, and the 1992 Super Bowl, when she, as they said, "performed to a safety track" she'd recorded in advance of her appearance. It was lip synching, and essentially, no one cared. No one cared, I think, for those same couple of reasons: Arista (her label) was pretty up front about what happened, and no one, really, thought Houston couldn't handle live singing. Ever.
Impressions of Beyonce as a live performer tend to be somewhat more precarious. And more pointedly, her public persona is more carefully managed, for better and worse, than Houston's ever quite was. Houston probably needed more protection, less overexposure. But it'e telling that, even now, neither Beyonce nor her spokespeople have particularly addressed the performance at the Inauguration, even after a week. Even a simple, "yes, she performed to tape" statement would kill a lot of the speculation and surmises that follow from the gossip.
Two things about the performance probably stick: the first is that faking a performance at the Inauguration is not a huge deal, but it's an odd choice, especially when, in the Obama years, Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, and Kelly Clarkson all managed live singing in similar, or identical circumstances (it's worth pointing out, too, that all three of those names are extremely seasoned live performers; and, too, that Franklin's performance wasn't her best... but no one cares). These are the days when, warts and all, the public has come to expect live event singing at particular venues and events. The other point is that Beyonce probably didn't help herself by recording a small, fairly intimate version of the National Anthem that didn't necessarily play well in the expanse of the National Mall. Big events tend to call for a "big" reading of the Anthem; we're full on Americans in our moments of natiuonal patriotism. Beyonce's version was small and quiet in the early going, and it felt small, and kind of tentative. It doesn't mean her performance choices were bad... but I tend to think she's still learning, as a singer, to be the kind of performer her fame suggests she already is - bigger than the room, up there with the legends. Her stardom is huge; her performing abilities are not, always. And again, that tends to be a reflection of her place in her generation, not necessarily a knock on her potential. A lot of these younger stars - whose fame seems outsized, and who have been carefully stage managed - seem overwhelmed when stepping into the shoes of these giant moments.
As I started, I don't care whether she lip synched; and, like RuPaul, I think she probably lip synched it better than most; she made it look so genuine, it was hard to believe the stories, at first. But I think the point is, lip synching wouldn't be a big deal if Beyonce and her people were honest about it, and if they challenged the occasionally absurd expectation that "live" singing should be an expectation or an ideal. But both, really, would be challenging and asking people to let go of their illusions. And that faith in illusions, I think, is still the problem Beyonce Knowles has most. Be fake if you must... but really, you might as well be honest about it. That's how to get to the place where no one cares.