There's been a lot of finger wagging, head shaking and righteous anger directed at Lance Armstrong for his career- and legacy-shattering hubris in lying about his doping, followed, somewhat predictably, by his act of contrition to the Queen Confessor, Oprah Winfrey, in a kind of mandated post-debacle epilogue for fallen heroes. Reactions to his disclosures have been swift. As we watched him sitting across from Her Fierceness, his face set in an inscrutable, if grim, expression as he revealed his sad truth after so many years of brazen denial, it's difficult to fathom how far down the rabbit hole this guy has fallen. And how deeply betrayed his audience feels.
We've got some like Buzz Bissinger over at The Daily Beast who's taken very personally Armstrong's tumble from grace (I Was Deluded to Believe Lance Armstrong When He Denied Doping); others, like British sportswriter, David Walsh, who's damn near built a career on how he "always knew," now finds reluctant vindication in Armstrong's coming out, so to speak. Of course, there are the millions of everyday people who defended Armstrong on social media, wrote blogs to his benefit, and adamantly stood up for a guy who'd "never once tested positive for drugs, ever!"... only to be royally gobsmacked by the recent revelations. Then there's his battered charity Livestrong, which surely must be reeling from the dismantling of its formerly idolized founder. It's been a cluster-punch all around and Armstrong (who did make his way onto my 10 Worst People of 2012 list), has a lot of explaining to do.
Or not. Whatever honest remorse he may be experiencing, or unavoidable reinvention he'll be obligated to explore, Lance Armstrong is more than just this one thing, this doping thing. As contemptuous as I and others may feel about someone who systematically lied, cheated and won... then lied about the lying and cheating until he finally decided to tell the truth about both... the cheating and the lying, he is more than that one -- those two -- things... cheating and lying. He may deserve to be on someone's "worst" list, but still... he's a person of many qualities and character traits, some of them stellar, and my hope is that he'll transcend his shame, take his punishment, and ultimately reclaim some of his inherent goodness to spend the rest of his days as an honest and positive force. We'll see.
But in truth, this column isn't about Lance Armstrong (I know, could've fooled me, too!). It's more about the idea of honestly and authenticity. In all this horror and indignation at the notion of doping in sports, something tangential to that story comes to mind; something that resonates on a similar level of highly pressurized competition; also affected by issues of performance honesty and authenticity. I'm talking about the music business, an industry rife with the digitally enhanced performances of many of its competitors, some of whom can't sing their way out of a shower, play the instruments they're slinging on stage, or deliver a good vocal without the wizardry of digital producers and sound men who conjure their "magic" to life; digital doping, if you will.
Tell me, how different is that from doping in the the sports world?
There's a very funny video floating around the Internet called "Life as a Recording Engineer" that, in a matter of minutes, sums up this phenomenon perfectly. It's been shared all over social media and always elicits roars of laughter, not because it's a revelation, but because -- much like the sporting world's long awareness of doping, denied or otherwise -- most in the music business are equally wise to this not-so-secret dirty little secret of the modern, post-analogue music world.[Watch "Life as a Recording Engineer"]:
We need only watch an artist warble painfully through the dreaded SNL "live" music segment (can we ever forget poor Ashlee Simpson?), listen to the pre-enhanced recordings of many an artist, or make note that auto-tune is rigged even for live performances, to realize just how much smoke, mirrors and machinery go into creating the music that sells and the stars that succeed. Technical wizardry in the recording studio has literally changed the playing field so that, like elite athletes, singers either "digitally dope" to compete in a very competitive arena where perfect vocals are expected, or they risk being seen as sub-par in an industry where "everyone's doing it," potentially losing listeners, the millions of dollars at stake, and, ultimately, their careers. Sound familiar?
And while it's possible many of the younger, less experienced, stars are not even aware of just how much manipulation goes into making them sound as "fabulous" as they do, certainly the producers and record labels are, and it's not only accepted and allowed, it's expected... not even blinked at. As one producer told me, "It's what the public wants; perfection from their pop stars. They don't care whether it's not authentic or not."
I talked to a top recording engineer and producer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, who shared his story about making a studio album with a young, hot, youth-oriented female vocalist. The girl had all the prerequisites of stardom and just enough talent to get her close enough that "we could fix it in the mix." They put her in the studio, propped her up with pros, handed her a guitar to strum occasionally so she could be called a musician, included one or two lines from her diary to say she co-wrote the songs, but, most egregiously, they not only auto-tuned every vocal, they had to "literally hand auto-tune each note, there was not one on pitch, and her tone, which was strident and difficult to listen to, had to be completely enhanced." (He said the word "literally" several times, as if to assure me he wasn't exaggerating.) And what happened to that fully manufactured performance? As planned, the record was a smash, the girl became a star, and likely not one of the youngsters out there screaming her name had any idea or concern that her actual contribution was minimal.
Certainly Lance Armstrong, despite performance enhancing drugs, worked a hell of a lot harder for his medals than many of these digital creations do for their Grammys and chart-topping hits but, except for Milli Vanilli (who actually didn't sing any of their vocals), I don't see any of them losing awards or their right to continue "competing" because of creative chicanery. Do we have any problem with that disparity? Are we as disturbed about this as we are about athletes who rely on banned substances and blood doping for basically the same reasons... to compete, to win, to give them the edge?
Doesn't look that way. In fact, some would argue there's no comparison to be made here; one is the rigorous and historical arena of athletics with its many rules and regulations, the other is the free-for-all of entertainment. Maybe so. But both are high stakes, highly financed, and globally reaching endeavors; both involve young competitors who compete as, supposedly, the best in their fields in difficult circumstances that demand excellence, and both come with returns for the winners that are financially and professionally life-changing. In listening to the many angry, indignant voices discussing the integrity and honor of fair competition, the expectation of winning and succeeding authentically and free of external assistance, I couldn't help but reflect on these parallel universes.
LIkely the charade going on in the music business will never raise enough ire to compel a rethinking of this now commonplace practice, but while we're wiping out Olympic medals and Tour de France wins, shaming errant athletes who crossed the line, denying future competition and keeping stars out of halls of fame - all consequences warranted and hopefully deterrence to further cheating - we might also, while viewing Lance Armstrong through the filter of his failure, give just a little thought to the many performance enhancements in equally high-profile and high stakes arenas that we do accept, without a blink of an eye or a wag of the finger... because "It's what the public wants... they don't care whether it's not authentic or not."
It is, if nothing else, an interesting contradiction.