Some pop stars know how to give a lot of lip

Concerts: Lip-syncing has been an issue in the music industry for years.

September 26, 2001|By Thor Christensen | Thor Christensen,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

In 1990, after the vocal duo Milli Vanilli turned out to be nothing more than two mimes in spandex shorts, lip-syncing became the worst-kept secret in pop music.

Lawsuits were filed. Legislation was proposed. And most experts predicted that within a few years, singers would stop lip-syncing onstage - or at least stop lying about it and proclaim it to be a valid part of their act.

But today, the issue is no closer to being resolved than it was a decade ago. From Janet Jackson's current tour to the dubious "live" performance by Britney Spears on the recent MTV Video Music Awards, the slogan "Is it live or is it Memorex?" remains on the lips of music fans.

"It's a question people find irresistible," says Liz Rosenberg, longtime spokeswoman for Madonna, a singer who's been dogged by rumors of lip-syncing for years.

"There's not a major band or singer out there today that people don't say `Are they really singing?' People like to dish and gossip about it."

But some music lovers and musicians don't see it in such trivial terms. Skeptics complain that dancers masquerading as singers are becoming the norm - and they worry that while fans may still gossip about lip-syncing, they no longer question it.

"Watching a canned show has become totally acceptable behavior, and it's bull," says John Mellencamp. "It's the difference between watching a drama and a cartoon."

Lip-syncing isn't exactly new to rock 'n' roll. Singers started miming to pre-recorded music on American Bandstand as early as 1957. But it wasn't until the 1980s - when MTV began preaching the message of style over musical substance - that pop performers began doing it in concert.

And while lip-syncing was obvious in the close-up camera shots of Bandstand, it was a well-kept secret during late-'80s arena concerts by Milli Vanilli, Madonna and New Kids on the Block. Thanks to the advent of synthesizer "sampling" and digital tape technology, sound engineers could suddenly sneak taped vocals in place of real vocals - with the audience none the wiser.

When concert lip-syncing was finally exposed at the dawn of the '90s, it created an uproar. Angry fans filed lawsuits against New Kids on the Block, who, like Milli Vanilli, eventually admitted singing along to tapes in concerts. A New Jersey assemblyman even introduced a bill requiring concert promoters to warn fans when singers used vocal tapes onstage.

But the bill petered out, and the hubbub over the lip-syncing died as quickly as it arrived. Today, a generation of fans who go to see 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears couldn't care less about the issues of integrity that separate live singing vs. lip-syncing: They just want to see the same razzle-dazzle dance moves they've seen in the videos.

Janet Jackson - one of pop's most notorious onstage lip-syncers - conceded to the Dallas Morning News in 1998 that she uses "some" taped vocals to augment her live vocals. But she refused to say what percentage of her concert "voice" is taped and how much is live.

Spears, speaking before her Dallas show last year at Smirnoff Music Centre, claimed that even though people are "thinking I'm lip-syncing, I'm singing my [behind] off."

Maybe so, but her microphone obviously wasn't picking up her "singing" - a fact that became obvious when her vocal tape broke during the concert, leaving nothing but dead air.

Of course, not every singer accused of faking it actually is. While Madonna picked up a major lip-syncing reputation on her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, she's changed her tune on her current tour.

A close look at her recent HBO concert found the Material Girl to be singing throughout the show. Rather than try to croon and dance up a storm at the same time, she stayed mostly still during her toughest singing parts and left the dance routines to her backup troupe. And when she did dive into some fancy footwork, she kept her singing to a minimum and had her backing vocalists fill in the gap.

But while Madonna has learned to strike a balance between spectacle and singing, many younger pop stars continue spinning nonstop across the stage like whirling dervishes. All that manic dancing leaves little room for actual singing - or so the explanation goes.

"If Janet sat on the stool and strummed her guitar, she could sing an eight-hour show," Rene Elizondo - Jackson's ex-husband and choreographer - told the Dallas Morning News in 1998. "Whoever says they don't use taped vocals doesn't dance."

Mellencamp says that's nonsense.

"I've been hopping all over the stage for 25 years, and so has Mick Jagger and Roger Daltrey," says the 49-year-old rocker. "And we don't tape nothing."

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