The first is a band that doesn't really sing. The second, a memoir written by a dog. Both happened to us in 1990.
Any fool can see that this is part of some larger, uglier phenomenon, a deterioration of authenticity, a breakdown of the barrier between truth and illusion. Forget world hunger and global warming and war and disease and poverty. This is deeper, vaster, stranger: Reality Erosion.
Reality Erosion is, at one level, a major trend affecting life as we know it, and at another level it is just a pair of capitalized seven-letter English words. This is sometimes known as Ironic Capitalization. In any case, the point is that a mysterious and terrible thing is happening to us, and even if it's NOT happening to us, nonetheless it IS happening to us, because truth and untruth have become so fuzzy that the veracity of something is not damaged by its being a lie.
There was a time when the Milli Vanilli case would have been called a "hoax" or perhaps even a "fraud." Now, it's just a too-clever marketing scheme, a tad outrageous but somehow unsurprising, predictable, even tolerable. We are desensitized and battle-hardened. The fact is, we like illusion. We like those fake foreign villages in Epcot Center. They're better than the real thing -- cleaner, more shops, and Italy's only five minutes from Japan.
Reality Erosion has become so widespread that it has spawned a small academic cottage industry. There are people who monitor such breaking bogusness as the Milli Vanilli scandal. They work in universities and write ominous books with terms like "hyperrealism" and "Boundary Warping." They agree that there is nothing aberrant in the Milli Vanilli case, because this is what America is all about. What most disturbs them is the possibility that people will assume that the problem is gone now that Milli Vanilli has been humiliated and de-Grammied.
Stuart Ewen, author of "All-Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture," said yesterday, "I think in some weird way, the punishment they are getting, the Grammy being taken away, creates the impression that under normal circumstances these kinds of charades don't take place. But within the music industry, and within other entertainment industries, and within the publicity industries, and within politics, it's become standard to sort of prefabricate and sort of engineer images for public consumption."
Neil Postman, author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business," summed up the situation: "The whole culture is becoming a kind of pseudo-event."
Ian Mitroff, a business school professor at the University of Southern California and coauthor of "The Unreality Industry: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What It Is Doing to Our Lives" -- probably the quintessential Reality Erosion title -- said, "They're an example of this larger phenomenon ... image creation and reality creation."
The real question, he said, is, "Do enough people really give a damn? Have people lost the ability to differentiate, and do they care to differentiate any longer?"
That is essentially the puzzle posed by the curious figure of Mark Kostabi, the New York painter who doesn't actually paint many of "his" paintings. He hires someone to do the painting part. He even hires someone to come up with the ideas for the paintings. All he does is sign his name at the bottom of the canvas. He calls his studio Kostabi World. The paintings sell for upward of $10,000.
"Only a fool would buy a Kostabi," he has said, adding that this statement is part of his shtick. He glories in his own flamboyant plagiarism. Like Andy Warhol, he is spoofing the rest of society and making a killing in the process.
"I think that Mark Kostabi is the public commentator on something that Milli Vanilli is an example of," Ewen says.
Who really wrote "Millie's Book"? The doggiebiography supposedly was "dictated to Barbara Bush." A spokeswoman for William Morrow, the publishing house, said there was no other ghost writer. She stuck to the company line: "The author is listed as Millie the dog."
Even fiction isn't as real as it used to be. Beth Ann Herman's novel "Power City" features a heroine who drives a Maserati. For her effort, she received a $15,000 party at the Wilshire Maserati dealership in Beverly Hills, according to a New York Times report. She writes in her book that the Maserati's "V-6 engine had two turbochargers, 185 horsepower and got up to 60 in under 7 seconds."
Her publisher, Bantam, is a leader in crafting fiction to fit commerce. A few years ago the company published a series of romance books, the Loveswept Series, in which the heroines used specific hair-care products sold by Clairol. From the book "Matilda the Adventuress," designed to hype a hair wash called Sheer Cinnamon, which was separately advertised in the back of the book: "Manda lifted her shoulder length cinnamon gold hair, and wiped her neck... . The firelight danced in the golden waves of her thick and vibrant hair ... her tousled cinnamon-colored hair, sparkling as though touched by a golden hand, shimmered in the headlights: Roman was fascinated for a fleeting instant by that brilliant halo of color."
Reality Erosion is not really new. Stuart Ewen says it probably goes back to cave-man times. It really kicked into gear in the Middle Ages when commoners, envious of the aristocracy, adopted the clothes of the nobility and started calling one another Baron and Lord. The pioneering work in Reality Erosion came in 1962, when historian Daniel Boorstin published "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America." The book foresaw the manipulation of the electronic media by political operatives. Boorstin wrote, "We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality."
The science of manipulating truth has advanced faster than our ability to detect phoniness. It is hard to imbue cynicism among people who are ignorant of even the basic facts of the world. Geology, for instance. The sum of most people's knowledge of geology is contained in the opening sequence of "The Beverly Hillbillies," when Jed Clampett is shooting for some food and up through the ground comes a-bubblin' crude. Oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea. If not for this we wouldn't know that oil sometimes spurts from the underbrush when hunters fire errantly.
Into this broad, diabolical picture stepped the guileless, handsome, semi-talented singers Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan. They are, or were, Milli Vanilli. At a press conference this week Pilatus tried to apologize for the sham:
"We really love our fans. We just hope that they understand we were just young and we wanted to live life the American way."
The American way requires that they now write a book. There is already talk of a book deal. Whether they will write it themselves is not a great mystery.