Now that everybody's had his fun with poor old Milli Vanilli, a few serious questions remain.
For instance, wasn't there some way they could have traded in their Grammy for an Oscar? Or had the category changed to Best New Con Artist?
Seriously, who's going to sponsor their next tour -- Memorex?
Monday, Milli Vanilli was stripped of their Best New Artist Grammy by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (this as they were about to surrender it on Tuesday). So far, though, no one's suggesting they'll be turning their hardly earned royalties over to Charles Shaw and the other "real" singers whose vocals are heard on the septuple-platinum album. Shaw and Co. may be morally entitled to the mechanical royalties paid on each album, but probably signed away those rights for a flat fee. All this undoubtedly will be coming out, as will a new Rob Pilatus-Fabrice Morvan album. No one knows what name they'll be using, but perhaps they could borrow the title from George Michael's latest: "Listen Without Prejudice."
A final sour note: Todd Headlee, who handled Milli Vanilli for its American management during much of 1989, is going to write a book about his experiences. Wonder if he'll be using a ghost writer?
More questions: did Arista Records, which distributed the Milli Vanilli album in the United States, intentionally misrepresent the duo as singers? Well, Arista says it didn't know, which Milli Vanilli producer Frank Farian disputes. In any event, Arista's not likely to mail out 7 million corrections (or apologies) to the folks who bought the album.
Does this mean that the record industry will have to introduce yet another warning sticker: "Parental Advisory -- May Contain Surreptitious Performances." Or that concert tickets will have to sport a disclaimer: "Not Real, but an Incredible Simulation!" In fact, three states -- California, New York and New Jersey -- have introduced full disclosure legislation by which promoters will have to make clear to consumers before concerts that some of the music -- vocal or instrumental -- was prerecorded. In New Jersey, the bill calls for a $50,000 penalty for promoters and up to $5,000 for authorized ticket vendors who violate the law. The bills have the strong support of the American Federation of Musicians, which holds that modern technology is putting musicians out of work around the country. Currently there is no parallel law or proffered legislation addressing "false pretenses" made by record companies, but the current fiasco is likely to bring the issue into the spotlight.
Since the advent of MTV and the proliferation of dance-oriented singers like Milli Vanilli, Madonna, Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, George Michael, M.C. Hammer, Michael Jackson and the New Kids on the Block, audience expectations have been drastically redefined -- in concert, they want live versions of what they see on MTV and BET, with CD-quality sound. Unfortunately, few artists are capable of re-creating both exhausting dance routines and polished vocals in live perfor- mance, so something gets lost in the transition. As a result, some artists rely on defensive strategies: simply lip-syncing to prerecorded vocal tracks; using a live microphone, singing over a safety prerecorded vocal track to cover the rough spots; background singers, both on and off stage, who can double the lead singer, also covering rough spots. At least the vocals are the artists'. Milli Vanilli's crime was that they were lip-syncing to someone else's performance in a rock opera version of "Puttin' On the Hits."
Few artists are willing to admit they use concert helpers: Last summer, when there were rumors that concerts by Milli Vanilli and the New Kids were as much as 50 percent taped, label representatives either lied or were evasive. Clive Davis, head of Arista, insisted that such rumors were "absurd," but gave himself an out by saying he was basing his stance on the word of Frank Farian. As for the New Kids, their manager, Dick Scott, conceded that they used some backing tracks on the "more intricate production numbers," but critics suspected the group relied on tapes for most of its intricate harmonies. Carl Freed, head of the North American Concert Promoters Association, estimated that 90 percent of the pop, dance and rap acts on the road either use tapes or reproduce instruments through synthesizers; this is less true with rock and country bands and simply does not apply to less popular genres like jazz, blues and bluegrass.
Indeed, it's not just vocals that are Memorex (actually Synclavier). There's probably much more electronic enhancement of instrumental tracks, through digital sampling (in which any sound can be digitally analyzed, captured and stored in a computer memory, to be played on demand) and digital sequencing (a computerized update on the player piano). Many sounds and effects created in the studio can't be duplicated cheaply, if at all, by live musicians.
Sometimes it's a question of competence (some of today's "major artists" can't play their instruments and must rely on studio musicians and hired road-guns); sometimes it's a question of finance: It's expensive to take a horn section or a string quartet on the road if you only need it for a few songs. It's a lot easier to punch the musicians into a computer: They don't need a per diem or a hotel room, they're always on time and they never get sick.
On the club level, dance artists have long performed live to prerecorded tracks (that's how Madonna got started), but even on the concert level, some major acts have used prerecorded tracks. Todd Rundgren used to come out and do a half-hour of singing and playing guitar or keyboards above complex tracks, and artists from Laurie Anderson and Sinead O'Connor to David Byrne have worked solo-to-tape, but always absent the artifice.
Then there's the proliferation of computerized lighting and visual effects for major concerts. All this helps cut down on the spontaneity that some fans feel is crucial to music-making. Those fans tend to be older than the MTV-defined audiences that constitute the greater part of today's concert-goers. Still, even yesterday's rock fans are familiar with the process. After all, lip-syncing goes back to the days of "American Bandstand," television variety programs in the '50s, and even the Cavalcade of Stars tours. Of course, concert technology was so minimal back then that the deception was probably a favor to audiences.