Remember when Milli Vanilli admitted that they lip-synced all their live shows? Remember all the anger? Got their Grammy yanked. Some record stores even offered refunds on Milli Vanilli tapes and CDs. The anger of the public got so bad that one of the guys in the duo killed himself. His partner said the guy couldn't live with all the public humiliation. One person from that time period--Downtown Julie Brown (remember her?)--defended them saying it's not like they were the only people in the music biz doing this stuff. There seemed to be little public reaction to Brown's assertion that lip-syncing was rampant in the industry.
Fast forward to today. Lip-syncing is a standard now and so accepted that fans of an artist will get angry if someone accuses that person of lip-syncing at concerts. Not because they disbelieve the accusation but because they don't see anything wrong with it.
A little history: lip-syncing is not new. The first instance of it that I know of was from a 1929 MGM film called "The Broadway Melody" directed by Irving Thalberg. Whenever he wanted a scene re-shot, he would just have the actors mouth the words that were already on the soundtrack. To my knowledge, this was the first example of lip-syncing. I saw old footage from the 40s showing comedian Dudley Dickerson mouthing the voice of Big Joe Turner (being a big Turner fan, I know his voice the instant I hear it). By the 50s and 60s, lip-syncing was the standard for television. Old rock and roll programs as "Where the Action Is" always had the musical guests (whoever was popular and had a single to push) lip-sync their latest song. Same with "American Bandstand." But everybody knew they were lip-syncing and often the bands made no attempt to even look like they were really playing (on one Bandstand episode, just as the drums play an intro, the drummer stood up and threw a paper airplane at the lead singer). It was television and they wanted the real song played so people could hear what they were (hopefully) going to buy. Most of the time, the bands had no real equipment to play through. That made it cheap to produce as well. The thrill for the kids in the audience was that they were going to be on television and get to see their favorite act even though they too knew it was just a lip-sync.
Was this unethical? Not in my opinion. Thalberg's move was just smart. Why have everybody sing all over again when they can just mouth along to the previous take? It saves money and time. Dudley Dickerson was hired for his comedic talents but was not a singer so it only made sense to hire a real singer for him to mouth the words to. The rock and roll variety programs and talk shows were just showcasing some band's new single or album and the labels wanted the viewers to hear the actual recording. Again, that makes sense as long as it is not being passed off as real.
But today, performers lip-sync at concerts when they should be performing live--especially if people have paid good money to see what is supposed to be a live performance. This is as unethical as those bands who call themselves the Drifters or Steppenwolf or something but nobody in the band was ever in the real band. This is just a cover band using the real band's name because they legally own it--although some states won't allow these bands to perform under that name because so many people in the audience demand their money back. And they are right to demand their money back. So, if an "artist" lip-syncs at a "live" show, does not the audience have a right to demand reimbursement?
Some of it is borderline. There was the Ashlee Simpson (who??) incident on Saturday Night Live back in 2004 where her voice machine didn't want to play nice:
Aretha Franklin had a lip-sync disaster in 2004 when she "sang" the national anthem before a Detroit Piston game. The camera closed in tight on her face and suddenly we hear Aretha belt out the Star-Spangled Banner. The problem is that her mouth was still closed. The cameras immediately cut away to strictly faraway shots for the rest of the song.
Small surprise then that Franklin would defend Beyonce when she had a lip-sync fail when she too "sang" the national anthem at Obama's 2nd inauguration in 2013. Franklin said that Beyonce didn't have "good singing weather." To me, a good singer sings good in any weather. Maybe Ashlee Simpson didn't have good singing weather at the SNL studio and Aretha herself didn't have that precious weather inside the Palace at Auburn Hills.
Madonna appeared at the Superbowl in 2012 and did the halftime show. Although it was entertaining for its visuals, she lip-synced it from start to finish. The reaction of people wasn't very angry. One guy I know and whose musical tastes are quite good pronounced it the "the best halftime show ever." Just think how much better it would have been if Madonna had actually sang!
All of these performances were performing for television and so is it that bad? Well...sure Simpson's performance on SNL was television but SNL is also known for having live musical acts. If Simpson faked it, how many others have and will continue to fake it?
Rihanna is known to lip-sync her concerts and her fans defend it. She dances around so much, you see, that she's too out of breath to sing so she HAS to lip-sync. Ummm...is it sacrilege to ask that maybe she not dance around so much so she can sing as she is supposed to be doing? Do these people pay to see her dance or hear her sing? I am confident that they are not seeing her dance on the radio.
Recently, Selena Gomez "melted down" onstage when her "audio system" failed. She continued to talk to the audience and did another song before yelling the F-word and stalking offstage. She had promised two songs but only gave the audience, almost entirely children, one. What I didn't get about the story is that if her sound system died, how was she able to continue talking to the audience and continued to do songs. Let's be honest here, the audio system that gave out was her recorded vocal and without it, she could do nothing. Realizing how bad she sounded without it, she left the stage early. Gomez as we remember was the girlfriend of Justin Bieber. Think he sings for real? I don't. I'll guarantee he lips-syncs too at concerts because they all do.
What would these performers have done if they were singing at Lincoln's inauguration? Singers of the past couldn't just cue up a tape or a digital recording. They sang it for better or worse. So why are we settling for this crap now? So what's the big deal if Beyonce wants to lip-sync you may ask. Well, aside from the fact that she's performing for the President of the United States (I'm talking about the office, not the man) if she would lip-sync that, what else has she lip-synced? When else has her singing weather not been any good? Why should we, in fact, believe that she has ever sang a real note in her life?
For that matter should we believe any of the others? Lip-syncing is rampant:
And we are supposed to believe the winners of programs as "American Idol" really do sing? The problem is, Idol does not allow people who sing professionally to participate. They want the raw, untested talent (they want stupid clips of idiots making fools of themselves trying to sing and sometimes it backfires, e.g. William Hung--remember him? Do you want to?). The problem is, some guy who wins idol who has never sang professionally is not suddenly going to have a career singing. For those of us who have played in bands and who have sang ourselves, we know how HARD it is on your voice to be singing day in and day out and night after night after night regardless if it is good singing weather or not. Your voice takes a severe beating. You put it through more than the human voice was meant to endure. Only the tried and tested can make it. It's not any different than being an athlete. We always wonder why these athletes who are supposed to be so healthy and in such great shape are always injured and always undergoing surgery. Because they put their bodies through far more than it was meant to endure. Singers do the same to their voices.
My uncle was once in a jazz band in the mid-50s. They had a female lead singer named Jerri Adams. During the Cole Porter song "Love For Sale", Adams would sing and walk from the back of the nightclub to the stage in a slow, sensual gait like a hooker because that is what the song is about. Because they did not have cordless, transistorized microphones back then, Adams had to sing with no mic at all. She had to fill that club up with her bare voice and yet she did it night after night for years. Very few people could have done that. I certainly couldn't.
For awhile, Adele was the biggest thing on the market. Then she developed a cyst on her vocal chords and had to take some time off to get it removed. She thought she was ready for the big time. Mother Nature proved otherwise. They claimed the operation was a smashing success but the truth is, Adele is not in the spotlight the way she was before the operation. She's received some awards and all that but for someone who seemed to have a song vying for some kind of award in about every genre for 3 or 4 years running, for someone who sold a phenomenal amount of recordings, she's strangely quiet now. I don't think that cyst was as harmless as they let on. When I sang in a rock band in my youth, I did it for about 3 months before I had to stop. It tore my throat up something fierce. I couldn't talk anymore. All I could do was shriek and that was really starting to hurt. I would wake up from a dead sleep with sharp pains in my throat and it was so painful to swallow that I just about cried out in agony and knew I had to stop or I would lose my vocal chords. I still sing but I do jazz and blues now and it's much easier on me. I don't think my throat has ever fully recovered from the abuse I put it through. It takes a special person to sing all day everyday--especially in large halls and stadiums. Not everyone can do it. So if these Idol singers are really just amateurs who never sang professionally, they might make it through the show all the way to winner but they cannot have a career without lip-syncing and lots of it. It takes a LOT of training and paying dues first and even then only 1 in 100 is good enough.
Truly great singers as Billie Holiday literally sang until their voices gave out onstage. I once read an account of a man who attended Billie's last show. Her voice gave out part way through and that was it--show over, career over. She didn't have a recorded voice to mouth and dance around to. She wasn't afraid of it. She went the way she always figured she'd go. She was for real and what happened to her is what happens to singers--for real. Ask Whitney Houston. And that seems to be the real problem--there are no more Billies, no more Sarah Vaughans, no more Bessie Smiths, no more Billy Eckstines. They've been replaced by a bunch of phonies who get free passes for their deceptions. People who are not willing to invest the time and effort it takes to truly be a singer or they might end up like Adele (who at least tried). People so unsure of their talent that they can't perform without that recorded vocal track accompanying them every step of the way. These are people Billie Holiday would have spit on.