Beyonce dustup just shows how much Americans love their illusions
By David Mann
David Mann is a Twin Cities theater artist and business consultant.
Can you believe it? Beyonce may or may not have lip-synched the National Anthem! And a senator said Hillary Clinton may have faked her emotional outburst at the Benghazi hearing! Then it turns out that Manti T'eo may have participated in the hoax about the girlfriend he didn't really have. All this after Lance told Oprah his very existence is a figment of the imagination.
What's real these days?
Last summer I took my 8-year-old to Valleyfair. He really wanted to go on the Corkscrew, so we did it. Ninety seconds of screaming for dear life, then we pulled into the station. He giggled with glee, eager to run around and do it again.
Isn't it strange — taking your kid on a ride that makes him scream for dear life? Isn't it strange that these thrill parks exist at all? But they do, and there's a good reason: It turns out part of the human brain doesn't distinguish between the feeling of danger and the real thing. As far as that part of your brain is concerned, riding the Corkscrew is the same as jumping off a cliff over and over. But we keep running around to do it again because our higher faculties know it isn't real.
I work in theater, so I'm well acquainted with the line between reality and illusion. Theater artists work hard to create a sense of reality made from light, paint, costumes and words. We know that audience members need the fiction to resemble reality in order for them to have an authentic emotional response. It's a paradox: Something that's technically an illusion can provide a deeper experience of reality than, well, reality.
Now, no one is disputing that Beyonce sang the National Anthem. She just might not have sung it right then when we were watching her. We have therefore concluded it wasn't real at all. Not like the rest of the inauguration, which was totally real. People always just gather by the thousands on a freezing morning, the president always just strolls out and stirs everyone's souls with glittering words. This isn't worked out in advance or anything; it just happens, right?
And that's the contradiction. In America we expect reality to be staged, yet still be reality. We love believing the illusion, but in our media-drenched Land of Oz we keep reaching for the curtain to see the man behind it. Then, when we find him, we wail in outrage: "What do you mean there was a man back there this whole time? I want my money back."
Beyonce could have decided to be really, really real. She could have let the spirit move her and belted out an improvised riff on how happy she was to be an American. A ridiculous thought, of course. But if we're going to demand reality, where's the line?
In America we love reality — so long as it comes in a neat package. We love the thrill ride that simulates danger, euphoria, patriotism, heroics ... and then pulls into the station exactly on time.
- All Things Considered, 02/01/2013, 4:54 p.m.