Musicking (verb): To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composition), or by dancing. From “Musicking: The Meanings of Performance and Listening” by Christopher Small
It’s been almost 20 years since Rob Pilatus, one of the members of the ill-fated pop group, Milli Vanilli, was found dead in Frankfurt, Germany, a sad suicide after a flash-in-the-pan career at the tail end of the ‘80s. This happened about 10 years after a live performance on MTV in 1989, in which a technical glitch made it obvious that they were lip-synching. It was then revealed that they did not sing on their own albums they were subsequently stripped of their Grammy Award for “Best New Artist.” Although we can never know why he committed suicide, it’s hard not to believe that the implosion of the group’s career after their exposure as “fakes” had something to do with it.
Milli Vanilli’s fall from grace almost 30 years ago, reveals some astonishing changes in our perception of popular music and pop stars. Most strikingly, in my opinion, is the fact that in 1989, Milli Vanilli’s subterfuge elicited such outrage from pop music fans and the music industry alike. The betrayal and the revelation of the group’s inauthenticity struck a nerve as if to say: “We can live with the drugs, the promiscuity, the shattered personal lives, and the shortened lifespans, in fact, we expect and enjoy some of those things, but this is just too much—our pop stars are the seers and poets of the modern age, if we can’t trust them to be truthful, then we’ve got nothing left. Milli Vanilli must pay for this transgression—off with their Grammy!” At the time, I found it all to be quite strange. The Grammy, awarded by the Recording Academy, is a music award, so if the music was so good that it garnered a “Best Artist” award for Milli Vanilli, why not give the Grammy to the studio singers who sang all of the tunes? The music didn’t change, it was just discovered that the “singers” were really not musicians or singers at all, just runway fashion models and dancers providing the eye candy and spandex-wrapped dance moves for what would turn out to be a short-lived pop music fad. The Recording Academy took the group’s Grammy away without any sense of irony—the affair clearly demonstrated that the Grammy’s weren’t assessing the music in this instance at all, and as such, they were revealed to be as inauthentic as the group they were condemning.
Still, I have to give the industry some credit here. While there may be some hypocrisy involved, at least the Recording Academy and the fans were asserting some kind of standard. Looking back on the reaction today, it seems positively old-fashioned, almost chivalrous, like a scene from a 19C romance novel where some minor social misstep leads to a duel. And even that is an overstatement—in today’s pop music world, the practice of lip-synching at many “live” performances is common place. Indeed, without it, many of the pop stars of today would not be able to perform at all—it is impossible to sing consistently while engaged in a 90-minute Zumba workout. I’m sure that most fans of the various iterations of Dancing Singers so common in today’s pop landscape are aware of the fact that the vocals are, to some degree, prerecorded, and they have no problem with that element of deception. (It is so common in other arts that we have a name for it—we call it the “suspension of disbelief.")
It is not, however, limited to the Brittanys, Biebers and Beyoncés of the world. Live pop music performances today are multi-media events, with synchronized light shows, fireworks, smoke machines, video backdrops, and costume and scene changes that rival the Broadway stage. This is all coordinated by a computer-generated “click track” which is piped into the drummer’s earphones. This keeps the entire group in synch, not only with the lights and the stage show, but with the prerecorded tracks or computer-generated music that accompanies the band.
These prerecorded tracks help to buttress the live show and make it sound more “like the record.” Since the recordings often have dozens and dozens of different tracks, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate that sound in a live concert. For example, if a string quartet or a choir was used on a few tunes, it would be cost prohibitive to tour with those groups, just to perform for 12 minutes a night. Additionally, if the guitar, keyboards, and background vocals, for example, were multi-tracked 10 times each on the recording (which is not uncommon), it would require a host of additional players to play those parts, which also makes no sense. If bands had a person for each track, they’d need a stage the size of a football field.
The recording studio has long been another “instrument” in the music making process, but now it has insinuated itself into live performances as well, so much so, that it is hard to know how much of what is heard at a pop concert is actually being played live and how much is the computer karaoke. I think most people realize this is the case, but, unlike with Milli Vanilli, no one seems to care. Many pop stars have been exposed, and yet there is no backlash from fans or from the industry whatsoever. I find this fascinating; from a cultural and aesthetic perspective, something in the way we listen to and value music has changed in just a few decades. It’s possible that we are just more comfortable with the use of technology than we were 30-40 years ago and that we’re willing to let the robots play our music for us—they’re already flying our planes for the most part, and they’ll soon be driving our cars, so why not?
I don’t have any problem with this. What interests me is what it reveals about our relationship with different types of music. Imagine the discussion above, but instead of pop music, substitute classical music, jazz, folk, blues, or traditional country music. Suddenly, we’ve got a serious problem: “We went to see the New York Philharmonic perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto and the piano part started skipping—it was obvious that she was miming! Then, to make matters worse, the same thing happened with the trumpets. The entire audience started booing and demanding refunds.” The reaction would be the same if this happened at a jazz club or blues bar—shock and outrage as the “betrayal” was exposed, followed by the storming of the box office by the angry music fans. In these styles, listeners expect high levels of musicianship and technical prowess from the soloists and the ensembles. This is an integral part of the live experience in these styles of music, but that is not the case with much of pop music, although some genres, like progressive rock, have similar expectations.
Similarly, by the time Milli Vanilli came along, the bands started mattering less than a decade before. In the 1970s, band members were an integral part of the collaborative music-making process, but by the late ‘80s, more and more were like Milli Vanilli—a group concocted in the studio, without any unique “voice” created by the melding of different personalities over a period of years. Try to imagine Led Zeppelin without John Bonham, whose unique and powerful drumming is the bedrock of the group’s sound. It’s hard to imagine them achieving the success they did without Bonham. Then ask yourself “Who is Lady Gaga’s drummer?” Of course no one knows, because the answer is that it doesn’t matter who plays drums for Lady Gaga. (That is not meant to disparage Lady Gaga’s music or her drummer(s) at all, it is simply a statement of fact.)
We have indeed come a long way in a short time. If Milli Vanilli was a successful group today, and the same thing happened, it’s likely that it would have been a momentary blip on the screen, like it was for so many of today’s stars who have been busted, rather than a career ending event that contributed to a young man’s tragic suicide in a lonely hotel room in Frankfurt. What is it about pop music that allows today’s fans to ignore such obvious fakery and inauthenticity, which fans from previous eras would not have accepted, and which would be entirely unacceptable in classical, jazz, and other styles? As I have previously written, I think it is because a great deal of pop music is not primarily concerned with music at all:
I would suggest that pop music is primarily a delivery device for an attitude or posture (most often rebellious or oppositional) that the listener wishes to develop or project. In this task, pop music succeeds marvelously, which is why I think it is so popular. In order to accomplish this goal, however, it must not venture too far into the musical territory occupied by jazz and classical music. If it does, the more sophisticated musical elements take center stage and demand attention, pulling the listener out of the reverie of self-actualization and into the world of musical discourse, detracting from pop music’s purpose. Pop music glorifies and valorizes the listener and provides the soundtrack for self-empowerment; as such, the real “star” of the show is not the music or the band at all, it’s the audience, and the music simply can’t be allowed to “steal the show.”
That is why Milli Vanilli’s crime wouldn’t register as a misdemeanor today. So much of pop music functions as an “aural mirror” that the fans hold up to admire themselves in, essentially an expression of mild narcissism masked by the idolatry and hero-worship of the pop star. Thus, when the music is half karaoke, if the singers can’t sing in tune, if the lyrics are mundane, it doesn’t matter because we still see ourselves reflected in the mirror, and that’s what we’re responding to, not the “music” in any real sense. This also explains why so much pop music has such a short lifespan. Ardent fans jettison their “favorite” bands regularly in favor of a new face and then the previous band becomes first an embarrassment, then a nostalgia trip. How can that be the case? The music hasn’t changed, yet it has lost its value to its formerly loyal and devoted audience. The answer lies in what has changed—the fan is 3-5 years older and the pop star no longer reflects this “new” version of the self, but some other group does. This doesn’t happen in classical music or jazz. Of course, tastes change, but no one is ever embarrassed that they used to listen to Miles Davis or Beethoven. The music stands on its own as a means and an end, without requiring any emotional or psychological projection from the listener to make it valid or efficacious.
Lest any of this be misconstrued, I am not attacking pop music—it is something I enjoy and listen to often. Additionally, its worth and meaning to billions of people is obvious and unassailable. Its power and popularity have been somewhat of an enigma, especially when compared to other styles where the sophisticated musical content and virtuoso technical skills are found in abundance. Looking back at the sad tale of Milli Vanilli helps us, I think, to further our understanding of the relationship we have with pop music and how that relationship is evolving. In doing so, perhaps we can get past the Cul-de-sac discussions about musical “value” and simply embrace each style on its own terms. As to Milli Vanilli, it seems that they have the last word here—in retrospect, they weren't "fake muse," they were simply too far ahead of their time.