Digital technology has contaminated pop music. Since first proliferating widely in the 1990s, it has allowed singers to correct bum notes, thicken up concert mixes with backing tracks and let studio producers manipulate real and synthesized parts so easily that you can’t tell what’s authentic. Numerous pop stars have lip-synced performances, and while many artists certainly patched up live albums in the past to sound better, people are now fixing things during the concerts themselves. It's not honest.
All of these developments have me thinking: We really owe Milli Vanilli an apology.
The American reaction to Milli Vanilli’s duplicity was a bit extreme and unfair. After all, it's not like fakery hadn't existed in the music industry in the past.
The late-’80s pop duo — with their dulcet harmonies, long dreadlocks and slick dance moves — became immediate stars and won prestigious awards after the debut of the multiplatinum “Girl You Know It’s True.” But 30 years ago, on Nov. 14, 1990, it was revealed that the two dancers had been lip-syncing to someone else’s vocals. The subsequent media and fan outrage led to a spectacular fall from grace.
To rewind: Back in Munich in 1988, two young club kids named Rob Pilatus, from Germany, and Fabrice Morvan, from France, were discovered and signed by German producer Frank Farian, who wanted to create a Euro-pop group and seemed to think they had the right look and moves. They became known as Rob and Fab individually and together as Milli Vanilli.
Released in June of that year, the pair’s first single, “Girl You Know It's True,” a cover of a regional hit by Baltimore-based group Numarx, went to the top of the charts in several countries outside of America. Their success lured the ears of Arista Records. As Farian worked away at a record for the company, Rob and Fab made nothing more than photo-op appearances at the studio.
Once the record “Girl You Know It’s True” came out in March 1989, success rushed in. Everyone kept their mouths shut about the lip-syncing charade, with employees at their label reportedly signing confidentiality agreements. Rob and Fab later said they felt pressured into staying quiet. The album scored three No. 1 U.S. hits and sold millions of copies to fans who adored the duo, their looks and their dancing.
Stateside media was wary, with the singers' respective French and German accents seeming suspiciously thick for men who sang flawless English. At one fateful live performance on the Club MTV Tour in the summer of 1989, the track of the lyrics started to skip and repeat, with Rob running off stage in embarrassment. But since there were no smartphones or social media to instantly share that debacle with the world, the incident didn’t make it far. Neither did the revelation by the album’s actual rapper, Charles Shaw, to the European press that Pilatus and Morvan were not the true voices of Milli Vanilli in December 1989.
While fans remained hopeful that nothing was wrong, reporters started pushing for the truth. But the rumors weren’t enough to keep Milli Vanilli from winning three American Music Awards and a Grammy Award for best new artist by February 1990. They then hit the road and performed more than 100 shows.
By November 1990, however, the tape of the Club MTV performance had leaked and their producer could no longer fend off the frenzied press. On Nov. 14, Farian openly admitted that Rob and Fab had not sung on the album or in live shows. The disgraced performers said the men who sang on their album should get the Grammy that they won, but it was revoked by the Recording Academy, the only time in its history it has done so. (Funnily enough, the group's American Music Awards weren’t rescinded.)
The pair made failed attempts in the following years to relaunch their careers, including a 1992 “comeback” album that tanked. After their career-spanning “Behind the Music” special aired on VH1, and just prior to the intended release of their second comeback album in 1998, Pilatus died from a heart attack likely brought on by an accidental overdose of alcohol and pills.
Since that time, Morvan has been a club DJ and worked on various solo and group projects. European fans have been pretty forgiving. He still appears on TV there, and many fans still see him perform live. And yes, he can sing, just not the way that you heard on “Girl You Know It’s True.”
With the benefit of hindsight, we should acknowledge that the American reaction to Milli Vanilli’s duplicity was a bit extreme and unfair. After all, it's not like fakery hadn't existed in the music industry in the past, just not at this level.
In the 1960s, the Monkees initially mimed session musician performances on their hit TV show until they gained creative control with their third album. (They could already sing and many members also played instruments.)
Throughout the '70s and '80s, musicians who appeared on television variety shows were generally lip-syncing their music because that was the norm. TV execs wanted, and still want, no surprises. Even the first Bon Jovi single “Runaway” was a demo performed by Jon Bon Jovi and studio musicians before he had assembled his band, so the video is their mimed performance to someone else's tracks.
By the dawn of the new millennium, the harsh reality was that the vocal-pitch-correction tool Auto-Tune, the digital editing software Pro Tools and lip-synced performances had seeped into mainstream pop music. Over the last two decades, numerous pop divas have lip-synced their own performances (notably Britney Spears, as well as Mariah Carey and Ashlee Simpson) or used Auto-Tune. Many rock bands regularly use vocal or instrumental backing tracks. And, unfortunately, T-Pain exploited Auto-Tune when he didn't need to and ushered in a loathsome trend for people who likely just couldn't sing. (Cher came first, though, with “Believe” in 1998.)
Yet it was Milli Vanilli who became the villains of fabricated pop music. In retrospect, the scandal should never have been as big as it became. It’s true they were lip-syncing to others' voices and not their own, but there’s no denying that pop music today is a thoroughly phony affair. I frown upon cheating during musical performances, but if my views were so widely shared in 1990, why are we not concerned with the artificial music being made today?
If anything, these days authenticity is in even shorter supply. Many pop hitmakers need multiple songwriters to help them create their material. Max Martin and other Scandinavian producers mass-produce simplistic pop hits. Various electronic dance music stars have been accused of faking live instrumentals.
Meanwhile, we live in an era of Instagram influencers who create fabricated digital profiles to sell products and score freebies. “American Idol” winners get famous singing someone else's songs. Reality shows are staged. The average person edits their daily routine to show they are “living their best life” on Facebook, TikTok and every other social media platform.
To be honest, I've never cared for pop performers such as Milli Vanilli. But these guys got a raw deal. They were young and foolish, like we all have been. If we had decided the group’s debacle was the end of lip-syncing and digital manipulation and had raised our standards, it would be easier for us to justify how we derided them. But it did nothing more than grease the wheels for the tricks and manufacturing of musical performances we eagerly consume today.