Lip-Syncing: Fraud or Future Direction?

As technology invades pop music, the industry faces the task of protecting honesty and nurturing true creativity

NOW that the pop-music duo Milli Vanilli have suffered a double shame - having it revealed that they never actually sang on their hit album ``Girl You Know It's True'' and having their Grammy for best new artist of 1989 taken back - the issue of lip-syncing has taken center stage in the pop-music industry. Several questions are being tossed around:

Is lip-syncing always a fraud?

Are people being ripped off when they pay to see a concert and a portion of the singing is lip-synced?

Is advancing technology leading us into a musical world where nothing is ``real''?

Has the MTV cable channel made us so conscious of video images that the quality of music doesn't matter much any more?

I spoke with several people in the music industry, from record producers to top-name artists.

As we move deeper into the '90s, it seems likely that visual images and the expediency of technology will become even more important than they are now. The challenge to contemporary musicians will be to find a way to use the advancing technology without sacrificing creativity - or honesty.

Singer Donny Osmond pointed out in a phone interview that there's nothing new about lip-syncing; in fact, he says he used to lip-sync in the ``Donnie and Marie'' TV show in the '70s.

As for the Milli Vanilli controversy, he says, ``I think it's blown out of proportion. Let's take, for instance, `West Side Story' - a classic movie. Natalie Wood wasn't singing in it. Part of me says that there's really no problem with this, as long as you don't go out there and start making statements like Milli Vanilli did.''

Mr. Osmond is referring to the comment made by Milli Vanilli member Rob Pilatus at the '89 Grammy ceremony that he and his partner, Fab Morvan, were as musically significant as Bob Dylan.

But as an artist who has made a radical change in his own image - from the squeaky-clean look on his ``Puppy Love'' album to the current tough, unshaven look with his new album ``Eyes Don't Lie'' and his video ``My Heart Is a Fire'' - Osmond also feels that the image today, especially since the advent of MTV, is a crucial factor for pop musicians.

``It's a part of the times,'' he says. ``How are you going to fight it? ... you'd be fighting technology, and to try to fight technology is stupid because it's constantly in a growth mode. I really doubt that a Dylan or somebody like that could really be popular nowadays. Back then, people listened more to the lyrics, because it was just radio, and they were enthralled with creating their own visuals in their mind about what the song meant.''

The bottom line, according to Osmond, is that the teenagers who go to concerts probably don't care whether the artists are really singing or not.

``I went to see Janet Jackson's concert,'' Osmond continues. ``People were having a great time, but she was up there lip-syncing. Madonna - the same thing. The best part of the concert, at least for me, was when she sat down on a stool and sang. But for the teenagers - they want to see her up there dancing. They want to see what they normally see on MTV - a live music video.''

Those cases are different from the Milli Vanilli issue, however, because the audience is at least hearing the same artist, even though the voice is recorded. But Peter Link, producer, composer for theater, TV, and film, and star in the former Broadway musical ``Hair,'' agrees with Osmond.

``I'm not sure that the teenagers, who are about 85 percent of the [music]-buying public, really care whether the people sing or not. It's become a sampled world,'' says Mr. Link, referring to synthesizers. Link himself is a user and strong supporter of synthesizers, sampling machines - which store and retrieve real instruments and voices and electronically), and sequencers ( which record musical segments,layer them, and play them back). ``I don't think they care that the music they listen to on the radio and on their CDs isn't a `real' violin section or that it isn't a `real' drummer. What's the difference? It all ends up on tape anyway.''

Link gives an example of what happens in the recording studio these days. ``I'm working with background singers now, and when I say let's go do the second chorus now, they'll say why don't you sample it? I'll say, because I did something a little different in the second chorus, and they'll often look at me like, `Oh, come on. You're wasting our time!' ''

Michael Ratti, a musician and independent record producer here in New York, tells about an experience he once had with one of his own groups performing as a drummer in a studio. The producer asked him to play the drum parts to be recorded and said that afterwards the parts would be programmed and played by a drum machine.

``From the beginning I didn't like the idea,'' says Ratti. ``I felt uncomfortable and in a way kind of used. But I thought, OK, if this is going to help us in the long run, if it's going to expedite the sessions and save us time and money, let's do it. But it was never the best way musically. When we played the tape for people, I was always at the edge of my chair ready with an excuse in case somebody said, `How did you do this?' ''

As a producer, Ratti has also worked with people on recording sessions and then, at the live performance, used other people up front, lip-syncing the voices. Sometimes, he said, it was a question of availability or certain people just wanting to do the session and not the showcase. but more often, it had to do with image.

``...In the record industry ... you think first [about] what's the best way to sell it, rather than what's better artistically,'' adds Ratti. ``That's happening more and more in recording and in live presentation. People are thinking: How is this going to look visually?''

As far as lip-synced concerts are concerned, Ratti says, ``people are disturbed when they find out, but when they don't hear about it they're entertained. They're very fickle; they'll say, `Hey, that's great, I love that.' But then when they find out, they're the first ones to throw the stone. - you know, crucify 'em.''

Nevertheless, Ratti believes that lip-syncing is limiting for the artist. ``There is no creativity, and that's what you're supposed to be doing as an artist, as a musician,'' he says. ``If you're not doing that, then what you're doing to the public and to yourself is wrong.''

Singer and human-rights activist Judy Collins, who has just released a new album, ``Fires of Eden,'' has seen a lot of changes in music and recording techniques during her career. She was the first person I spoke with who sees some humor in the Milli Vanilli situation.

``Just remind everybody that it was me ... I did the vocals on the Milli Vanilli album,'' she told me with a laugh. ``All this other gossip is untrue!'' Then she switched to a more serious vein.

``To discuss the issue of image, one has to discuss television and its impact on marketing - whether it's marketing a president, or marketing Milli Vanilli, or marketing Judy Collins. What's behind the image that's marketed often has no substance,'' she says, citing examples in politics, the economy, and so on.

``But we also have been marketed things which have great value, and I think that you can't condemn MTV or television or the media, really, for the marketing of things which have quality and value.''

As far as the criteria for what's valuable, Ms. Collins says ``I think it's the responsiblity of people to make up their own minds. ... The vote is cast when you go to concerts, when you buy records, when you buy books, when you vote for a political candidate. My feeling is that live music and good creative work make a difference in people's lives - it always will.

``So we can't indict the media; we have to indict ourselves. It's our responsibility if we make 2 Live Crew more important than feeding hungry children. If you pay attention to what is tawdry and meaningless, that's what you'll get in your life.''

When asked specifically about paying to see a lip-synced concert, she says it is a matter of choice, but adds, ``The ethics of being honest about who is doing what is important to me. The truth of the matter is that, if this had been up front, nobody would have cared.''

Legislators in Massachusetts apparently agree. They have filed a bill that would compel artists to notify audiences when they are lip-syncing.

Both Collins and Osmond acknowledge that many people in the music business knew from the beginning that Milli Vanilli was lip-syncing.

``It was common knowledge in the business, but this kind of thing is not new,'' says Collins, citing the many singers who have dubbed their voices over the images of actresses in the movies over the years. ``It's an old trick.

``But it's correct not to give Milli Vanilli a Grammy for doing music that they didn't do.''

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