A little history:
February 22, 1990: Pop sensations Fabrice Morvan and Rob Pilatus, a/k/a Milli Vanilli, who achieved international acclaim as a result of their Arista release, Girl You Know It’s True, win the Grammy for “Best New Artist.” Soon, the rumors began to swirl that Morvan and Pilatus were not actually singing on the records as had been reported in the press. So intense were these rumors that on November 12 of that same year, Frank Farian, creator and producer of the Milli Vanilli project, confessed that Morvan and Pilatus did not actually sing on the records. Four days later, Milli Vanilli’s Grammy was “withdrawn,” and Arista dropped them. After the details emerged, the controversy spurned over 26 different lawsuits across the country under various consumer protection laws.
Early 1992: New Kids on the Block’s song If You Go Away peaks at #16 on Billboard as an associate producer on one of their earlier albums allege that the band lip-syncs to performances by Maurice Star, and that Star actually sang many of the parts on their albums. As the story develops, the band cuts short their tour to appear on The Arsenio Hall Show to perform a medley of their hits. During the subsequent interview, the band admits to using Star’s vocals as a backup track during their live performances, and admit that Star sang harmonies on some of their background vocals. The band never recovered from the backlash, and their record sales steadily declined from that moment.
November 6, 2009: Hundreds of angry fans in Perth, Australia, walk out of Brittany Spears’ Circus concert when it becomes apparent that she is lip-syncing to her songs. Consumer affairs groups in Australia are seeking legislation to require disclosures when a performer intends to employ lip-syncing in a live concert. “Fans deserve to know what they were paying for,” says Consumer Affairs Minister Tony Robinson of the Victorian Legislative Assembly.
Fast forward to:
January 31, 2010: Taylor Swift wins four Grammys: Album of the Year and Best Country Album for Fearless, Best Female Country Vocal Performance and Best Country Song for White Horse. Swift, who is by all accounts an extremely talented songwriter, gave a stunningly weak vocal performance during her duet with Steve Nick’s that drew starkly negative reviews from professionals and amateur press and bloggers alike. For example, Bob Lefsetz described her performance as “dreadful” and opined that she may have single-handedly imperiled her career with this one performance. The general consensus is that her Grammy performance is not an isolated incident. Truth is, many professionals in Music City are aware of Swift’s inferior vocal talents – almost every conversation about Swift in this city includes one or more references to “auto-tune” technology.
The primary issue can be stated as follows: is there a significant difference between a digitally-created rendition of a vocal performance and using a superior vocal performance from an singer who is not marketable to front a more attractive and marketable duo, a/k/a Milli Vanilli or to using a backup track (even of your own vocal as in Spears’ case) to enhance your live performance. Isn’t the former example simply a modern, technological replacement for the latter? If so, then the question becomes why is today’s society not as outraged at Taylor Swift as past society was at Milli Vanilli, New Kids and Spears?
In his response to criticism of the Grammy performance, Scott Borchetta, president and CEO of Swift’s record label Big Machine Records, offers this explanation for this discrepancy:
Maybe she’s not the best technical singer, but she is the best emotional singer. Everybody gets up there and is technically perfect people don’t seem to want more of it. There’s not an artist in any other format that people want more of than they want of Taylor. I think (the critics) are missing the whole voice of a generation that is happening right in front of them. Maybe they are jealous or can’t understand that. . . . No one is perfect on any given day. Maybe in that moment we didn’t have the best night, but in the same breath, maybe we did.
Borcetta gets no argument from almost anyone I know in the industry that perhaps Swift is not the best technical singer. But I’m not sure the explanation that Swift is the “voice of a generation” does much to address the underlying issue: The Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance went to a singer who, even her label head admits, is not a great singer! In her defense, Borchetta goes on to say “If you haven’t seen her live performance, you’re welcome to come out as my guest to a Taylor Swift show and experience the whole thing, because it’s amazing.” But if the show’s audio is auto-tuned, how does this amazing experience differ from a Brittany Spears’ lip-synced performance, if at all? How is different from New Kids on the Block using additional harmony tracks to enhance their live performance?
Someone else once phrased it this way:
“It’s not about being authentic anymore, it’s about being entertaining.”
Interestingly, this was a quote from Morvan of Milli Vanilli in a USA Today article in 2010. Morvan goes on to say
“Twenty years later, what we were crucified for what you now see everywhere.”
He right, is he not? Let’s be honest. In America, at least, pop music has sporatically produced a certain amount of, shall we call it, “manufactured product” – performers who were either assembled, created or otherwise enhanced in order to manufacture entertainment value. My first disillusionment with this came in the form of The Monkees when I discovered that they were a band “assembled” by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider as an American “Beatles” alternative, i.e., as a means of capitalizing on the success of the Beatles. In the past, however, it seemed that society had a greater tendency to reject these disingenuous creations.
As technologies become more and more sophisticated, this trend toward entertainment value over authenticity is easier to achieve without consumer awareness. It used to be a little more difficult to go back and “overdub” a particular performance which was out of tune or offbeat, because the engineer had to physically rewind the tape, record the alternative part on a separate recording track, and then sync the new part into the old one. A bit more time consuming. Now, we have software which can independently correct not just the pitch, but an isolated note out of a chord which may be out of tune for one reason or another. It’s a matter of moving the mouse over the note, highlighting it, and correcting it. The proprietary technology allegedly used by Swift, Antares Audio Technologies’ “Auto Tune,” allows singers to perform perfectly tuned vocal tracks without the need of singing in tune. Wow! It reminds me of the digital amalgams created for Madden 2010 by EA Sports by placing diodes all over football players and digitally recording their movements: while these digital characters bear a striking similarity to their analog counterparts, they are not real. Neither are the digitally created vocal performances.
To resolve the issue, we need to answer the question, “what do we want from our performing artists, whether it be a live performance or a recorded one? “ For me, I think I prefer simple honesty. Or, as Milli Vanilli ironically put it, “authenticity.” I like to hear performers with technically superior skills performing the music they created. I really don’t want to listen to a digitally enhanced vocal performance. So, I do agree with Borchetta that everyone is not perfect, and that many people prefer a live performance that has the feel of being non-technical. After all, who can forget that off key guitar note at the end of the Allman Brother’s recording of Statesboro Blues (a note which they DO NOT replicate in a live performance), or some of John Bonham’s almost syncopated rhythms on Black Dog? Those performances, though not perfect, were authentic performances by persons with superior, technical skills. And this is precisely where I differ from Borchetta: I personally think most people, while they don’t expect perfection, do expect their celebrities to be technically superior, at least with regard to their advertised talents.
Judging from prior examples such as Milli Vanilli and Brittany Spears, and the audiences’ reaction to those performers, people have an expectation that an artist will be able to actually perform the music that was marketed to them through the media. In other words, most people expect their performers to be authentic.
Now, maybe Borchetta is correct, that Swift is, in fact, an authentic person who can communicate well through her gift of songwriting – again that’s not the real issue. The real issue is that Swift is portrayed as more than a songwriter, she is portrayed as the performer with the “Best Female Country Vocal Performance.” This representation is the crux of the issue. The fact is, Duane Allman, although he might hit an off key note once and awhile, was a technically superior guitarist. John Bonham, even though that one performance might fade slightly off the beat for a brief moment, was a technically superior drummer. And finally, Stevie Nicks is a technically superior vocalist. Thus, when juxtaposed alongside Nicks – no matter how many tours she sells out and no matter how many millions of CDs she sells – it became apparent that Taylor Swift, while an amazingly-talented songwriter, is not and will never be a technically superior vocalist.
Not to worry, though, she will most certainly always be the slightly off-key voice of a younger generation of admirers. Or will she. Time will tell I suppose. But lest we put too much stock in past success as an indicator of future fan support, don’t forget, Milli Vanilli’s record was also multi-platinum.