August 17, 2008
Lip-Syncgate Gives Voice to Western Concerns About Chinese Totalitarianism
By Paul Farhi The Washington Post
The first scandal of the Beijing Olympics is in, and the loser, apparently, is China. As the assembled global media reported this week, Chinese officials last week quietly made a little switch at the opening ceremonies, replacing a 7-year-old singer with a child deemed more attractive, who passed off the first girl's recording as her own on TV.
Which raises a question: Lip-syncing is an international scandal?
One answer: Under the circumstances, maybe it should be.
On the face of it, lip-syncing is no big deal. Most performers in music videos or movie musicals use it. Singer-dancers do it in live performances, too, given the difficulty of dancing and singing simultaneously. Heck, even the Beatles did it in their early British TV appearances.
Using a glamorous stand-in for a more accomplished singer has a fine tradition, too. Didn't Hollywood do it when it hired Natalie Wood (dubbed by songbird Marni Nixon) to star in "West Side Story"? Didn't it do the same thing with Audrey Hepburn (Nixon again) in "My Fair Lady" or Deborah Kerr (yep, Nixon) in "The King and I"?
So what's wrong with the Chinese doing the same thing during their $100 million floor show?
The difference might be that from the West's perspective, the Chinese story plays into a larger narrative of totalitarian control and perfectionism. Although barely visible in NBC's glossy prime- time coverage of these Games, the lip-syncing episode taps a deeper suspicion about China's authoritarianism and groupthink. Lip- Syncgate seems to expose the iron hand behind the smiling faces in Beijing.
The decision to bench 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, who had won a kind of "Chinese Idol" contest to sing at the opening ceremonies, was reportedly made at the last minute by a member of China's politburo. That alone sounds both odd and chilling. Imagine, if possible, the Western equivalent: On the eve of a big Broadway opening, the secretary of commerce emerges from the wings and overrules the show's director on the big finale. More chorus girls! the bureaucrat orders.
L'affaire Lip-sync reminded the world that such state control is business as usual. "This was a last-minute question, a choice we had to make," the ceremony's musical designer, Chen Qigang, said in an interview with Associated Press Television. "Our rehearsals had already been vetted several times. They were all very strict. When we had the dress rehearsals, there were spectators from various divisions, including, above all, a member of the politburo, who gave us his verdict: We had to make the swap."
It should be a measure of China's openness that Chen revealed the switch. After all, greater engagement with the West, and its democratic values, was one of the International Olympic Committee's stated justifications in awarding China these Games.
But there was no such official transparency in this case. Chen isn't a Chinese citizen; he's a French national. He said in interviews that he felt compelled "to come out with the truth" after Chinese officials sought to hide the decision to dump Yang.
For the Chinese, the story only got worse. Chen, as well as several apparently embarrassed Chinese officials, sought to cast the decision not only on aesthetic grounds -- Yang's replacement, Lin Miaoke, was deemed prettier on TV -- but also as a matter of patriotic pride.
"The main consideration was the national interest," Chen said. "It is a question of the image of our national music, our national culture. ... After all, we have a perfect voice, a perfect image and a perfect show, in our team's view, all together."
In other words, state planning and social engineering at its finest.
There's also the question of the song itself. NBC host Bob Costas reported that the song was called "A Hymn to My Country," which seems to be a more benign translation than the title reported elsewhere: "Ode to the Motherland."
"Hymn." Hmm, that sounds kind of religious.
"Motherland." Why, that sounds ... communistic.
A small detail in a minor incident. But a reminder that perhaps East and West haven't fully reconciled their values. And not even a $100 million kickoff party can change that.
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