I don't know how long it took the rest of the country to catch on, but about three seconds into Beyonce's performance of the national anthem at the president's inauguration, I knew she was lip-synching.

Immediately after, the Internet exploded with condemnation and ridicule, turning what otherwise might have been a career highlight for the superstar into an embarrassment.

But what surprised me about the whole thing is that anyone was surprised at all.

What Beyonce did was so commonplace that I'd have been shocked if she hadn't done it. Once upon a time, singers were people who could sing. Those days, at least in modern popular music, are history. Nowadays, we just get really attractive people with marginal talent and let computers do the rest.

And it's been working this way for years.

How easy is it to fake your own vocals? You'll need about $400 and a Mac or PC. That's it. You can be the worst singer in town, but after a little digital alteration, you can sound like Johnny Cash or Rickie Lee Jones, or anything in between.

Even a decade ago, engineers were so good that you had to go see an artist live to see if they were any good. Records all sounded great. I still refuse to formulate an opinion of a band until I've seen them live. The problem is, even that plan has been wrecked by technology. Go see any mainstream artist today, and get ready for a pristine, auto-tuned and pitch-corrected sound coming from those speakers.

Yep, it's all processed now.

The challenge of altering live vocals used to be about the delay involved, but super- fast processors have made it all too easy. When your favorite "singer" sings into a microphone, that signal goes into a mixer with all the bells and whistles attached. What comes out the other end usually bears little resemblance to the singer's actual voice.

Frequently, as is the case with Beyonce (Kelly Clarkson's people did the same thing), they record the song in advance in a studio and play it back over the event's sound system.

A tiny earpiece gives them the playback so they know what to lip-synch to. Most big-name acts these days use a hybrid live/fake version of songs, where the singer is singing, but doing it in synch with the pre-recorded version.

A sound engineer working the board only has to turn a knob -- one side is live, the other is a recording. That way, you hear all the snappy banter from the artist, creating the illusion of a live show. Once you've seen this done in a studio, it gives you a real appreciation for people who can really sing.

Just as evil as fake vocals are fake instrumentals, and they're every bit as common. There are a lot of big-name bands who lack the talent (or sobriety) to play their parts live. It's a snap in the studio, because session musicians play almost all the actual music.

But, again, this is big business onstage, so nothing is left to chance. So the next time you happen to notice that Kenny Chesney's guitar isn't even plugged in (a personal favorite Internet photo of mine), don't sweat it. He was never playing in the first place.

And sadly, most people don't even care. Abs and choreography have supplanted talent and passion.

It's our fault for letting it happen. A bunch of us old-school music fans can hear a pitch-corrected note a mile away- and we hate it.

The really rotten thing about all this faux musicianship is that it's just how music sounds these days. It's all so fake that we're losing our memories of what real music sounds like. If you'd like to reconnect with actual talent, the next time you're at a music store, put down that Taylor Swift CD and find some Alison Krauss. When you hear that Faith Hill is coming to your town, get on the Internet and find out where Emmylou Harris is playing, and go there instead.

And if you're ever elected president, invite Aretha Franklin to sing at your inaugural. That lady can sing. She has to. She started in the time before ProTools.

If you're a young singer with dreams of making it big, here's my advice: Forget stuff like vocal coaches and practicing; your time is much better spent at the gym, or at a plastic surgeon's office. Any rehearsal time should be spent on dance moves instead of vocal ability. That's where the money is these days. And who knows: You just might end up singing for the president and millions of people.

Well, singing along.