Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Milli Vanilli Scandal: Has lip syncing become the norm?

It's been over a week since the 100th Grey Cup was held in Toronto.  The featured performers during the half-time show were 74-year-old Gordon Lightfoot, a legendary folk singer and songwriter from Orillia, Ontario, 27-year-old Carly Rae Jepson, a pop singer from Mission, British Columbia and 18-year-old Justin Bieber, a ubiquitous teen idol from Stratford, Ontario.  Lightfoot sang his classic "Canadian Railroad Trilogy."  His voice is not what it used to be, but the septuagenarian was out there giving it his best.  Not only  that, but he was actually singing.  Can you imagine that?

Carly Rae and Biebs both lip synced.  At one point, Carly Rae even pulled the microphone from her face to encourage the crowd to sing along to her hit song, "Call Me Maybe.".  Surprise!  The background recording could still be heard.  Before you protest, I want to say that I am well aware that Bieber and Jepson move around the stage quite a bit more than Gordon Lightfoot.  I also realize that it is extremely difficult to sing live while performing complex dance routines.  Carly Rae's performance at the Grey Cup, however, did not involve any intricate choreography.  As for The Bieb, he did dance throughout his performance.

Here are some questions I've thought about recently.  How much does live singing matter any more, especially to younger audiences.  In the case of some performers, do their fans only care about their dance movements?

Mili Vanilli in their heyday

Remember the Milli Vanilli scandal?  Milli Vanilli, also known a Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, were disgraced by a lip syncing scandal at the peak of their celebrity.  Fabrice Morvan is a native of Gruadeloupe, France while the late Robert Pillatus was a German-American, born in New York City.  Back in the late 1980s, they were riding high. with several hit songs.  They had released an album, Girl You Know It's True," which produced three Number One and two top five songs.  Their music, despite its commercial success, was generally regarded as lightweight pop, a collection of catchy dance tunes.  Nevertheless, in February 22, 1990, Milli Vanilli received a Grammy award for Best New Artist.

The fraudulent duo, however, was unable to hide the fact that neither Morvan nor Pilatus had actually recorded any of  those popular Milli Vanillis songs. The pair displayed poor English language skills when they were first interviewed by television music channel MTV.  Their heavily-accented speaking voices did not match the flowing sounds of their recordings.  There were doubts among those present that Rob and Fab had voiced the songs on their hit album.  In 1989, during a purported live performance of "Girl You Know It's True." on MTV, the recording jammed and skipped, continually repeating part of a line of the song.

There was so much suspicion and speculation that Milli Vanelli  producer Frank Farian was finally forced to admit the truth.  On November 14, 1990, he called a press conference to confirm that Rob and Fab had not sung a single note on their best-selling album.  Farian had developed the concept and the sound he wanted for Milli Vanilli in the late 1980s in Munich, Germany.  Unable to find a singing duo with the image and look he was seeking to promote, he had recruited Rob and Fab from a local nightclub.  They were attractive models and dancers, better looking and more marketable than the singers who actually voiced the Milli Vanilli recordings.

German record producer Frank Farian

On the day after Farian's press conference, Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus gave an interview to Chuck Phillips of the Los Angeles Times in which they revealed their side of the story.  They placed the blame for the debacle squarely on the shoulders of Frank Farian.  Pilatus stated, "I feel like a mosquito being squeezed."  He then described the last two years as a "total nightmare."  He said, "We've had to lie to everybody.  We are true singers, but that manic Frank Farian would never allow us to express ourselves."

The Milli Vanilli scandal reverberated throughout the music industry.  It resulted in  lawsuits and accusations. Rob and Fab were completely humiliated and they became the butt of countless jokes.  On November 19, 1990, the National Academy of Recording Artists and Sciences took back the Grammy it had awarded to the duo that year. It was the first time in the history of the Grammys that an award had been rescinded.  Rob and Fab's attorney announced that his clients would return their trophy.

As for Frank Farian, he was not the slightest bit contrite.  He failed to comprehend why people were so unsettled about what he had done.  He justified his actions and denied that there was any betrayal.  "Did anyone in America believe that the Village People or the Monkees really sang themselves? The Archies?" he asked rhetorically.  "Please.  Everyone's been doing it for 25 years"  In essence, Farian offered the old "Everyone does it, so I've doing nothing wrong" line of defence.

Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus claimed to have been Farian's hapless pawns.  At the same time, they had no compunction about using their notoriety for financial gain.  In 1991, they appeared in a commercial for Carefree Sugarless gum in which they spoofed their lip syncing scandal.  In the ad, the duo lip sync to an opera recording while an announcer asks, "How long does the taste of Carefree Sugarless Gum last?"  The recording starts to skip and the announcer intones, "Until these guys sing for themselves."  To watch a video of the commercial, click on the link below.

In 1992, Morvan and Rob Pilatus signed a contract with a new record label, Taj, and released an album featuring their own voices.   The album, Rob and Fab, made no impact and its sales were abysmally low.  Soon after, the Taj label went bankrupt.  The disgraced duo decided to make yet another attempt at resuscitating their career in 1997.  They were, however, denied the opportunity due to Pilatus' premature death.

After the scandal, Rob's life had taken a downward spiral that ended in his early demise. During those years, he struggled with substance abuse and became involved in criminal activities.   In 1996, he served a prison term for assault, vandalism and attempted robbery.  He also spent time in drug rehabilitation

On April 2, 1998, just as the duo was about to embark on a promotional tour for their new album, Back and In Attack, Rob's body was found in a hotel room in Frankfurt, Germany.  The cause of his death was a suspected overdose of alcohol and prescription drugs and it was ruled accidental.  Rob Pilatus was only 32 years old.  The album Back and In Attack was never released.

As much as I have always enjoyed the music of The Beatles, even they lip synced on occasion, although not during their concert performances.  They lip synced in the "Hello Goodbye" video and in some of their other videos such as "Day Tripper,"  There is a big difference, however, between lip syncing in a video and lip syncing during a supposedly live concert.  It is far worse, of course, to take credit for a recording that is not yours, as Milli Vanilli did.

On January 1, 2012, London's Sunday Express published an interview with Paul McCartney in which the former Beatle blasted pop stars who do not play live during their performances.  Without naming any names, McCartney accused some performers of using tapes rather than their instruments on stage.  He said, "To me, the concert experience is at the heart of what music is really about.  You come to a show and you are in the room so it is the real thing  . . . When we make mistakes playing live, we always now turn it and say, 'Tell you what - this proves we are live.'"

- Joanne

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