The Super Bowl halftime show has always been a source of controversy, perhaps most famously with Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004. It’s only fitting, then, that on the incident’s 10-year anniversary, we have a whole new fiasco on our hands.
This week, the Red Hot Chili Peppers came under fire after fans called them out on miming their performance at Super Bowl XLVIII. After some inflammatory articles, blog posts and tweets, it was revealed that no, their guitars weren’t plugged in, and yes, the band was using a pre-recorded track instead of playing live.
Or, as Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose snarkily put it for Billboard.com, “They may have set a new world record for the largest karaoke audience ever!”
That’s because the Chili Peppers’ frontman, Anthony Kiedis, really was singing live, but his band was simply going through the motions for their rendition of “Give It Away,” a mere cameo during headliner Bruno Mars’ performance. Bassist Flea confirmed the allegations on the band’s website shortly after, saying that while he, guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and drummer Chad Smith pantomimed their performances, they didn’t attempt to use tricks to hide their staged playing.
“Could we have plugged them in and avoided bumming people out who have expressed disappointment that the instrumental track was [pre-recorded]?” Flea asked in the blog post. “Of course easily we could have and this would be a non-issue. We thought it better to not pretend.”
Still, fans and fellow musicians around the nation took issue with the show’s perceived lack of authenticity. Users on sites like Reddit used photos captured from the CBS broadcast to highlight the absence of cables leading from the guitars. Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid even tweeted during the performance: “That guitar is plugged into NOTHING.” An air of disappointment seemed to take hold, and even Rose suggested the band could have at least used wireless packs to make it not as obvious.
But Flea held strong to his convictions, suggesting that if people want to experience the band in its most real form, they should catch them on tour, like on the night before the Super Bowl when they packed Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
“It was like making a music video in front of a gazillion people, except with live vocals, and only one chance to rock it,” he wrote. “Our only thought was to bring the spirit of who we are to the people.”
This isn’t the first time a halftime performer has been slammed for using pre-recorded material or lip syncing during their set. But it’s important to note that the practice is quite a bit more common than you think, and it’s always done for the enjoyment of the people. At least, that’s what audio pro Mike Stahl says, and he should know. Stahl is a seasoned veteran, having worked the Super Bowl halftime show for every game since the late 1990s.
Even Bruce Springsteen used backing tracks for his performance in 2009. Was his band a bit more discrete about it? Perhaps. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that technicians have less than four minutes — yes, <em>four minutes</em> — to get everything set up for the big show. With that kind of time constraint, there’s simply no time for individual soundchecks. Playing along to a pre-recorded track is the only realistic way to ensure sound levels that sound good for the folks in the stadium and watching at home — even if what you’re seeing isn’t realistic at all.
So the lesson here is simple: for TV, everything has to be polished and proper and pristine. If the best way to ensure that is through pantomiming, what can you do except sit back and enjoy the show?
And if it’s any consolation prize, you could always buy Smith’s drumset from the controversial performance, because he’s auctioning it off for charity. You know, just because.