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Singing Like an American Idol

March 27th, 2004 · No Comments

Quick – name the winner of the Best New Artist Grammy Award in 1989. Need a hint? This group sold nearly 10 million albums worldwide that year, and dominated the U.S. charts with five top 10 hits. Another hint? Their Grammy was revoked a few months after they received it.

The answer is Milli Vanilli, the pop music duo fronted by Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, better known as Rob and Fab. Their sin? Rob and Fab didn’t actually sing on the album, but they did look stunning as they shook their long dreadlocks (also not real; they were hair extensions) and lip-synched their way through MTV videos and countless “live” performances of their hits from the album “Girl You Know It’s True.”

Back in late 1990, Rob and Fab became national pariahs, and Milli Vanilli jokes swept the country. But, Milli Vanilli also had their supporters. Before the scandal broke, reviewers of their concerts questioned the singing abilities of the duo, but noted that the thousands of screaming fans didn’t seem to care. Many of those people remained fans, even after the lip-synching admission.

There were two main camps in the debate: on one side were those who defended real singing. For example New York Times music critic Allan Kozinn responded to the Milli Vanilli scandal by lamenting “when musicians with large followings resort to fakery to cover for musicianship that they have not developed, their audience’s expectations are inevitably lowered. And that can only have a corrosive effect on music itself.”

On the other side were critics who supported the simulated performances. Andrew Sullivan wrote in the New Republic that “the idea that they (Milli Vanilli) merit opprobrium for not actually singing or writing songs they perform is ridiculous. The whole point—and brilliance—of the pop industry is that they don’t have to do any of it. What consumers rightly demand of pop is good tunes, slick production, and endless, sexy images on video . . . so all great pop records are team techno-efforts.”

All of this brings me to a more recent case: Britney Spears’ current concert tour (which recently had a stop in the Quad Cities). Early reviews revealed the obvious lip-synching as Spears athletically dances about the spectacular hotel-set stage and makes more than a half-dozen wardrobe changes, yet seem untroubled by it. In fact, concert reviewer Neil Strauss wrote earlier this month in the New York Times that “The lip-synching was neither a surprise nor a concern, however, because Ms. Spears is a star built not for singing but for entertaining. Her show was more a theater-and-dance spectacle than an actual concert.”

So we’ve come a long way since the Milli Vanilli scandal 14 years ago, but I’m not sure this is progress. True enough, lip-synching has been around in various forms long before Milli Vanilli. That wasn’t the voice of Christopher Plummer singing “Edelweiss” in The Sound of Music, and most artists on variety shows of the 1960s and 70s (and on American Bandstand) faked their vocal and instrumental performances.

Shortly after the Milli Vanilli scandal, the music industry quietly dropped its concern about lip-synching, as illustrated by the case of C+C Music Factory. The group had a hit in 1991 titled “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)”, and used a svelte model to lip-synch the uncredited vocals of a heavier singer. When people complained, Sony Music simply repackaged the video to read “Vocals by Martha Wash. Visualized by Zelma Davis.” Just two years after revoking the Milli Vanilli Grammy, the Academy nominated C+C Music Factory for Best New Artist of 1992.

And so lip-synching continues today. Yet, it seems rather ironic that as one of our premiere pop idols tours the country, lip-synching to her own recordings (which were no doubt enhanced by a recording studio wizard) the top-rated show on television is American Idol, which puts a premium on being able to actually sing.

But, maybe American Idol is evidence that our standards have been watered down. More than 80,000 people auditioned in this most recent season, and clearly, with a handful of exceptions, nearly all of them seem to think the visual part of their performance (despite mediocre, or worse, vocals) will make them a star. Where could they have gotten that idea?

Tags: Music

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