Is it Live or Is it Moronic?
February 8, 2002 5:35 PM   Subscribe

Is it Live or Is it Moronic? Yes ladies and gentlemen, though they still deny it or have no comment, many famous allegedly talented performers in the music industry do actually lip synch. Since Milli Vanilli accusations have been the norm, [sarcasm] but Inside Edition reported it today as if this was a brand new discovery, so it must be true. [/sarcasm] ...If a concert is advertised as live, shouldn't the advertising also specify whether or not the live vocalist actually vocalizes? What are the legalities involved if irrevocable proof is ever found? Or is it irrelevant because today's sophisticated audienes don't mind it when their favorite music performers lie to them?
posted by ZachsMind (32 comments total)
These people are entertainers first, musicians second.

Thus, I guess the show is still 'live' because they are there dancing around and whatnot, and there are probably real musicians playing the music for them to dance to. So while it may be disingenuous, it is still in some sense a "live performance."
posted by insomnyuk at 5:41 PM on February 8, 2002

(Does anyone else remember when Chris Rock hosted the Grammys, and pointed out all the artists who were lip-synching? Hehe.)

I was watching a pop show on uk tv last year, and a member of S Club 7 was being interviewed and was asked about their upcoming tour.

She said she was looking forward to it, but nervous nonetheless because it was the first time they were going to be singing live, rather than lip-synching.

I was astounded.

a) She admitted this on national tv.
b) She was so deadpan about it like it wasn't a big deal that they'd been miming all this time.

Ye gods. I used to think that, no matter what, most pop performers could actually sing, if not write their own songs or produce or whatever. Now even that's secondary to just being able to sell units (yeah yeah... not that big a surprise).
posted by John Shaft at 5:44 PM on February 8, 2002

So maybe today's international music star sensations are actually just playing the role of talented musicians and singers? We should accept this? There's nothing wrong with it?

Audiences don't want to see if Brittany Spears can hit that high note after two months on tour. They want to see her jumping up and down in hopes that she'll slip out of that tube top. We know that after all that dancing, Janet Jackson is too breathless to actually sing. Perhaps we should applaud their trickery. It's still entertainment.

The microphones attached to their cheeks are just a fashion statement, right?
posted by ZachsMind at 6:00 PM on February 8, 2002

ZachsMind, I guess I just don't care enough about musicians that care more about their acrobatic performances than singing (the two ARE mutually exclusive). Does anyone actually believe (other than gullible teenyboppers) that these people can sing and dance at the same time. Stand up from your computer (just for a moment) and try to jump around and sing one of your favorite pop songs. Don't forget to sit down before you black out. As you can see, it can't be done, even thought plenty of 'artists' do shows like this.

The microphones attached to their cheeks are just a fashion statement, right?

No, they use them to talk between songs, and they need their hands free when dancing. If I want to go see a nice acrobatic t&a show with smoke, mirrors, and really powerful hydraulic machines (see the enquirer article), I'll go see Britney in concert. If I want to see a truly good live musical show, with the emotion and variety brought to songs I love by live performances of them, I'll go see Radiohead, or Weezer.
posted by insomnyuk at 6:12 PM on February 8, 2002

We should accept this? There's nothing wrong with it?
Yes. You should accept this. Penn and Teller don't ACTUALLY do magic, either. But they are entertaining. I really doubt anyone who listens to Brittany Spears cares at all that she lip synchs. It isn't important. As insomnyuk said, she's a performer, not a musician. If you care about musical ability of the performers you listen to, you aren't listening to Brittany Spears or Janet Jackson.
posted by Doug at 6:26 PM on February 8, 2002

John Shaft: But it's not as if most of S Club 7 are bad singers. Jo, for example, has a voice that could easily take on Dion's power.. yup, live.

insomnyuk: You're on the money. Many of these acts are primarily entertainers, so this story is no big surprise.. with all of the dancing that Britney does it would be -unrealistic- to expect her to sing live!

You should have totally different expectations between going to see Britney Spears and Philip Glass. Most people don't just like Britney for her songs. It's the whole package.. the T+A, the looks, the dancing, the attitude, the statements, the music, the hype, etc..
posted by wackybrit at 6:58 PM on February 8, 2002

insomnyuk : "Stand up from your computer (just for a moment) and try to jump around and sing one of your favorite pop songs."

As I said in my previous post (which I guess I should have surrounded with more sarcasm tags), I'm well aware it's physically impossible for anyone to dance and sing with perfection. If it were possible, it would be an Olympic event.

I agree with you that if one wants to see real music, intelligent people like yourself know where to go, but shouldn't a concert that does not feature live music and vocals advertise that? Rather than pretend to be better than real musicians? I gotta lotta local artists here in Texas who I personally adore and I support them whenever I can, but they can't compete with the smoke and mirrors of these Hollywood Hoe-downs.

An individual is intelligent. The teeming masses of this world are ignorant, and they compare the raw talent of a local artist who is lucky to get a gig at Poor David's, with the elaborate fireworks show of some slick national artist who can land StarPlex with a simple phone call. My local artists fall short in the comparison, though they are far more genuine.

Doug: "You should accept this. Penn and Teller don't ACTUALLY do magic, either..."

Penn & Teller don't lie in their advertising. They satirize. They parodize (sp?) they may even plagiarize but when you buy a ticket for Penn & Teller you know precisely what you're getting yourself in for. Why? Because they don't advertise themselves as anything other than very good charlatans. You get what you pay for.

Those accused of lip synching claim to be real music artists. Intelligent people know they are just athletic figureheads who are the white rabbit of an elaborate magic trick. How long before it's proper etiquette to enlighten the teeming masses?
posted by ZachsMind at 7:02 PM on February 8, 2002

There are some of us who would say the whole business of music is no more than silly chords run together with some meaningless word-rhyming. In a world of so-called "real music artists" who bore me to tears with their g-d "artistic integrity" and other elitist claptrap, I'm glad the "teeming masses" (you know, regular folk) tend to say "we would like silly, fun, sexy musical acts" instead of taking the whole business so seriously as if it were some sort of morality or whatnot.

they can't compete with the smoke and mirrors of these Hollywood Hoe-downs

Too bad for them they can't compete. It's a market, they make the choice whether to give the people want they want or appeal to a niche.
posted by owillis at 7:14 PM on February 8, 2002

I feel sorry for the Milli Vannillis and Enrique Iglasias of this world. They don't want to lip-synch; they are forced to by the managers who control their careers. Everyone in the whole racket is afraid of human imperfection slipping through, and when it inevitably does the young fans illusions quickly burst and the money dissappears. Meanwhile the manager can move on to grooming another "star" in the market. The trouble is often the employee is deluded into thinking they succeeded because they were talented; when they realize they've been had it's all drug abuse and embarrassment at walking into bars for the rest of their days. Owillis is dead wrong; you have nothing but your integrity.
posted by dydecker at 8:24 PM on February 8, 2002

...instead of taking the whole business so seriously as if it were some sort of morality or whatnot. - owillis

Is there a difference between going to the symphony to see and hear people creating music and their own steam, and a boy/girl band/sensation do canned song and dance numbers?

I know I would be really ticked to find out that those great violins were previously recorded. In principle, I would be really ticked to find out that Britney isn't really singing. In principle, however, I would also be really ticked to find that Britney doesn't sound anywhere near the same live as in the studio.

For example, Mick Jagger sings like crap (and dances like crap, by the way, but he at least does both, live) on stage but in the studio he sometimes has the voice of an angel ie waiting for a friend off of Tattoo You. I was sold a bill of goods via the studio albums and I expect to get the same quality at a live show. Consequently, I have always felt somewhat let down after a Rolling Stones show, even if the pyrotechnics, the cavorting, the rock star posing, and so on, were perfect. If you've ever heard Paint It Black live, you'll know what I mean.

My point is that as the paying public, we have expectations that the product we bought into remains the same, be it studio or live. We have consistently expected perfection from our major stars and they have found ways to attain that perfection and not perform below our expectations.

It's not Britney's fault, or the Back Street Boys' fault, or even Milli Vanilli's fault that they lip-sync. It's ours.
posted by ashbury at 8:26 PM on February 8, 2002

dammit. it should read "on their own steam" not "and their own steam". argh!
posted by ashbury at 8:28 PM on February 8, 2002

Ashbury, I disagree. I go to a live show and hope the music is slightly different than the album. I saw Soul Coughing years ago, and was completely disappointed. They sounded EXACTLY like they did on the album. What's the point of seeing them live? It's unreasonable to expect it to be the same, or to even sound as good, technically. It should have a whole different dynamic.

Owillis, there's a fine line between being a man of the people and making rationalizations for liking crap.

Zach, I think the teeming masses KNOW that Brittany Spears lip synchs. Considering the fact that they know she's lip synching, and going in droves, I'd have to conclude they just don't care. They are looking for something different in a performing artist than you are. I agree that there are tons of local artists who deserve to be listened to, but that has nothing to do with lip synching. It has everything to do with people being about as sophisticated as chimps when it comes to music.
posted by Doug at 8:43 PM on February 8, 2002

Doug, I'm not saying that the live performance should sound the same or even be the same as the studio album; I'm saying that the quality should be the same. To quote another example, The Grateful Dead sound just as good live as they do studio, and the songs are frequently completely different, which is fine.

What's the point of seeing them live?

Most people go to concerts to see their favorite groups perform the songs they love. The key word is perform. To put faces and actions to the voices and music is an almost mystical event to many people. The first time I saw The Who I felt that way. Witness the screaming and tears that The Beatles caused. Or Duran Duran in their heyday. Or Bon Jovi. Or Garth Brooks. You don't get that with a live album, do you?
posted by ashbury at 8:57 PM on February 8, 2002

I saw Huey Lewis and the News twice in the mid-80's, about two years apart, and the shows were identical. I don't mean "close to the same", they were choreographed step-for-step, word-for-word, same songs in the same order, everything. They sounded exactly like they did on the album, and I was so pissed I drove my car over all my Huey Lewis tapes in the parking lot when I left.

I want to hear the bass player screw up. I want to see the lead guitarist break a string, and I want to see the lead singer forget the words to one of his own songs and then laugh about it. If I want to hear the songs exactly as they were recorded I can stay home, listen to the CD, and save a hundred bucks.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:58 PM on February 8, 2002

word. I want heartfelt and improvisation... other people want perfection. that's why I don't go to concerts by Madonna, etc, although I might listen to their music at home. but I do pay to see bands like Radiohead.
posted by kv at 9:51 PM on February 8, 2002

owillis (and a couple of others chatting in this thread), something tells you you really need a heavy dose of hardcore techno music. Most of the artists not only don't take themselves seriously, but just TRY lipsynching to most of the vocoded tracks. It would help show you that there is a whole pile of non-mainstream new music that not only isn't dependant on the voice (unless its an instrument), but better yet, usually doesn't take itself so seriously to really tick people off (well, that is unless you hate it and are a masochist).

The best part is because there's so few brand-name techno artists out there (I'd bet the average person on the street might name as many as 3...), the bulk of what you'll hear is done for fun by people in their basement who really don't care what the world thinks of their music.
posted by shepd at 10:38 PM on February 8, 2002

there's a fine line between being a man of the people and making rationalizations for liking crap

One man's crap is another man's gold. Which is my point.

you really need a heavy dose of hardcore techno music

I'd drill a hole in my head first.
posted by owillis at 11:07 PM on February 8, 2002

There is a reason why hardcore techno isn't mainstream: too many people have died from holes drilled into their head. Understandably.

But if you like it, all the more power to you.
posted by ashbury at 12:34 AM on February 9, 2002

Milli Vanilli != lip synching at concerts

Milli Vanilli never sang any of their own songs, live or on their albums.

Britney Spears may lip synch at concerts in order to be able to provide a better show (depending on the pop standard for better), but at least Britney (to my knowledge) sings on her own album.

Milli Vanilli is in a class unto themselves. They were purely about image.
posted by monkey-mind at 5:26 AM on February 9, 2002

Yes, monkey-mind, you beat me to it. I was beginning to think I was the only one here old enough to remember exactly what the scandal about Milli Vanilli *was* -- definitely a differently dirty little secret than lip synching to one's own voice.
posted by JanetLand at 5:58 AM on February 9, 2002

I don't think this any different than actors using body doubles in nude scenes, or the Pretty Woman poster showing Julia Roberts head grafted on another woman's body.

Considering how much pop music is manipulated by producers, the idea that Britney could even sound like any of her songs is a stretch. And the results when a synthesized band tries to perform legitimately can be pretty grim -- I'm still trying to recover from the Saturday Night Live performance by Dexy's Midnight Runners.
posted by rcade at 6:20 AM on February 9, 2002

I'm a live sound engineer by profession, so I'm the guy that presses "play" for those performers that synch. Playback of some sort is more common than the average concertgoer probably realizes, especially for large venue spectacles such as Britney, NSync, etc.

While there are still plenty of bands that play and sing every note live (and sound just as good on stage as they do in the studio), there are just as many performance situations where that's simply not feasible.

Sound waves move relatively slowly through air, about 340 meters per second. To get the entire cast and crew (band, singers, dancers, lighting, video, and pyro) tightly synched on a huge stage where natural delay may be in range of hundreds of milliseconds or more, click tracks and other timing signals are frequently employed.

Also, as others have noted above, singing accurately while dancing is difficult at best. Sometimes a vocalist will have a key track fed to their monitors with which they'll sing along. Sometimes this key track is also mixed with their live mic to smooth out their performance. Occasionally their live mic isn't used at all, or at least isn't prominent in the mix.

This is especially true of live concerts recorded for TV broadcast; viewers expect the performance to sound just like the CD, so sometimes the key tracks are mixed more heavily than the live mics in post production.

I have no problem with a certain amount of sync during live shows, especially when it increases the amount of entertainment spectacle the performance provides, but flat out lip-synch is shameful.
posted by johnnyace at 7:03 AM on February 9, 2002

Everyone lipsynched when appearing on American Bandstand, and there wasn't a whole lot of acrobatics on that show. I think that the majority of a pop-stars audience is there to hear the song, just like it is on the know...Huey Lewis aside. Which I guess is the line between a pop-star and an artiste. For a band like Radiohead (cos it's been mentioned) you know that there is a lot more dimension likely to happen in a live set musically. For, say, Ms. Spears, the music is as faceted as it's going to get & the kiddies want to sing along anyway, so the way she's spicing it up not only for the crowd but for herself, is to have some gymnastics & bondage routines. Lord knows if I had to sing "Oops I Did It Again" every night for teems of pubescent girls & their chaperones I'd need to be entertaining myself as well.
posted by thc at 7:23 AM on February 9, 2002

Strangely enough, for the first time in about 6 years that I have bothered to watch BBC1s Top of the Pops and I noticed that while Britney was sounding Identical to the radio version, Pink (the reason I had put the show on) was singing live and sounded completely different - a far more raw voice than the album.

Britney didn't make me want to go and sample more of her work, but Pink did.
posted by bregdan at 7:50 AM on February 9, 2002

In 1971 or 72 I saw Alice Cooper perform. In the middle of a song, the "musicians" set their instruments down in order to perform a skit involving a guillotine. The music continued uninterrupted, but my enjoyment of the concert was completely destroyed.

Since then, I've been plagued with doubt during every concert that seems too smooth, too polished. Am I just listening to a recording? What am I doing here?

I guess it has to do with what you expect from a performance. If you love the music, and you are paying for a live musical performance, then lip-synching performers are robbing you. If you go to a "show" to see pop celebrities dance, then you're in the right place and probably don't care.
posted by norm29 at 8:00 AM on February 9, 2002

"Does anyone actually believe (other than gullible teenyboppers) that these people can sing and dance at the same time..."

"...singing accurately while dancing is difficult at best."

:: mouth hanging open :: Uh, gang? Have none of you ever seen a musical? I'm not even talking about a Broadway show, I'm talking about any musical, even your local community theatre-type musical? Where they sing and dance and do sets and costume changes and all of this without microphones, even?

I know that even the biggest Broadway theater is smaller than, say, Madison Square Garden. I do take some of Johnnyace's comments into account -- but geez, people. It's hard work to sing and dance and be on top of it all the time, but there are tons of performers who do it. I'm amazed that anyone could think that Britney or Janet are the norm.

Does Madonna lip-synch? (No, really, does she? 'Cause I'd be willing to bet not.)
posted by metrocake at 8:39 AM on February 9, 2002

You're on! What are you willing to lose? I'll take your music collection, 'kay?
posted by ashbury at 8:52 AM on February 9, 2002

As I recall, Madonna has done some lipsynching in the past, though not all the time. I recall this because of seeing a story that she was reworking her performances to hold still during the more difficult-to-sing parts specifically to do away with the lip-synching.

Guess you're both right...

posted by elvolio at 10:30 AM on February 9, 2002

metrocake, most professional performers can sing and dance simultaneously just fine, as evidenced by the typical tap-dancing showtune musical. Theatricals of this type are usually referred to as "sound reinforcement."

In a well designed theatre, natural acoustics do much of the work, especially when there's a human orchestra in the pit and nothing needs an exorbitant amount of artificial amplification. Small condenser microphones are usually hidden in the performer's hair or tucked behind an ear, and feedback is pretty easy to control using a little digital processing.

Compare this with the tremendous sound pressure levels and slapback delays at a stadium rock concert and things get decidedly more interesting. The mics must now be positioned nearly in front of the performer's mouth just to pick up their vocals, and they must wear in-ear monitors to hear themselves at all over the sound system.

Look closely during most televised concerts and you'll notice the flesh-colored custom-molded earphones the performers wear to monitor their pitch and timing against the rest of the band, and sometimes against a reference key track. That reference track isn't always mixed into the mains (during ballads, for instance), but it is during the fifteen minute dance number.

I don't disagree with those who value pure performance over MTV-inspired spectacle, but don't fool yourself that everything you hear at a concert is being produced live onstage in real time. That song you love on the CD certainly wasn't recorded in one take, either. Relax, enjoy the show.
posted by johnnyace at 10:32 AM on February 9, 2002

johnnyace, isn't there also a machine that voices can be run through to keep them on-key?

If so, how does everyone feel about that? You're getting a "live" voice, but electronically enhanced to ensure that their pitch is correct. Is that live? (Or is it Memorex, I find myself saying)
posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:44 PM on February 9, 2002

crash_davis, there are plenty of digital processors that can compensate for a performer's inadequate vocals, including pitch correctors and vocoders (listen to Cher's "Believe" for blatant examples).

Is digital audio enhancement less appropriate than digital video enhancement? If someone uses Photoshop to compensate for poor contrast on a negative instead of analogue darkroom techniques, are they an inferior photographer?

I admit that the line grows rather grayer the more processing that's done. It's not impossible to pitch shift every note of a vocal track to a completely different melody than the one originally sung. This is obviously the extreme, but where's the delineation between tweaking and cheating?

To be literal, it's all cheating. The stage set isn't really steel and glass, it's plywood and plexi. The lighting looks dramatic because of the artificial fog and haze. The performer isn't really that beautiful under all the makeup. And sometimes, when technical limitations warrant, not everything you hear is live.
posted by johnnyace at 1:39 AM on February 10, 2002

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