The pressure to be perfect singing live

Audiences expect CD-quality sound

Observation

October 26, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Somebody goofed and, after the lip-synching went south, Ashlee Simpson wasn't about to take the blame. At first, anyway.

She faulted the band. Geffen Records, her label, pointed to a computer glitch. Her dad blamed a scratchy throat. Finally, Simpson admitted that the chance to perform before a national audience -- and really nail it -- was too precious to leave to chance.

In the end, though, the blame likely falls as much to the pressure to be perfect, to match the complex choreography of a video while performing live on stage. Which is why those who know show business may have felt embarrassed or sad for Simpson, but not surprised at the Saturday Night Live gaffe.

That night, as Simpson was poised to "sing" the title cut to her double-platinum debut, Autobiography, the vocals to a different song were heard, while Simpson held the microphone at her side. Caught off guard, the performer improvised a few odd dance steps, then left the stage as NBC cut to a commercial.

The Internet and radio airwaves went wild. The morning after the SNL faux-pas, Simpson's official Web site was inundated with thousands of posts, many of them mean-spirited. And, with Simpson scheduled to appear last night -- live -- on NBC's Radio Music Awards, there was little time for spin.

"When I saw the Ashlee Simpson thing, I felt bad for her because she can sing and she's a nice person," says Kid Kelly, senior director of pop programming at Sirius Satellite Radio. "I think it's being overblown. I think because she's young and didn't know what to do, it drew a lot of attention to it. The Irish jig portion made it look bizarre."

Simpson poked fun at herself at the awards show last night. As the band launched into the song "Autobiography," she stopped the band and told the house it was the wrong song. "Just kidding," she said after two beats. Then she ripped into a live version of the song.

So, what went wrong Saturday?

"I feel so bad. My band started playing the wrong song," Simpson told the SNL audience at the close of the show. She had performed her smash hit "Pieces of Me" earlier in the show without a hitch. It was the vocals from that song, heard by the audience, that gave her away.

Then her dad gave up the goods.

Joe Simpson, the singer's manager-father, said his daughter's voice was hoarse because of acid reflux disease. "Just like any artist in America, she has a backing track that she pushes so you don't have to hear her croak through a song on national television," he told Ryan Seacrest on Los Angeles radio station KIIS-FM.

And the 19-year-old pop star came clean in a statement Sunday, saying her voice was too worn to sing live, but that she needed to appear anyway.

"I can't cancel something like SNL," she said on her Web site. "You and I know that even if I synched on it or not, I'd still be seen by millions, maybe a few more fans."

Many pop stars, like Simpson, feel they have no choice but to seek vocal enhancement. Since the advent of MTV and other video music channels, pop audiences have been fed elaborate videos thick with jaw-dropping effects, awesome choreography, fabulous clothes, marvelous bodies. And the same level of perfection is expected to extend beyond the video set to the concert stage. So if Britney Spears, Janet Jackson or Madonna sounds shrill and flat without a backing track, fans won't pay up to $300 for a concert ticket. Audiences want attitude, gravity-defying dance moves, skimpy outfits and freakishly flat stomachs.

"To replicate the recording as close as possible in a show, you have to have a backing track," Kelly says. "That has been around for years, for decades."

True, the whole business of artists lip-synching is as old as rock 'n' roll. In the '60s, '70s and '80s, shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train featured pop acts mouthing the words to pre-recorded tracks to expedite the production of the program. But it was the real thing when artists performed on stage in arenas and concert halls, clubs and amphitheaters.

Neither is choreography new. Decades ago, such hugely influential artists as James Brown and Tina Turner combined real singing -- soul-venting screams and shouts -- with their fancy footwork across the stage. The legends of Motown -- the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Four Tops -- could spin, dip, clap and shimmy at the mike without a missing a note. Mick Jagger could shake and do his famous chicken strut as he showed "sympathy for the devil."

But today, the expectations of "live" performances seem different. For instance, during the R. Kelly and Jay-Z show at 1st Mariner Arena a few weeks back, there were times when both acts simply held the mike to the house as their vocals played on. There wasn't even a band, just tracks. And the audience didn't seem to care. The set was huge and clunky; sparks shot from the edge of the stage. But the music was just like on the radio.

"The lip-synching is more accepted in pop because it targets a specific mindset," Kid Kelly says. "You're interested in the song, not the mechanics of the song, not if the musician is classically trained. You take the song at face value."

Ashlee Simpson has the talent to perform live, Kelly says. But that's not good enough for today's concertgoers. When it comes to "live," it's all about matching what fans hear on the CD or the radio, regardless of how manipulated or complicated the song may be.

"If she's singing the lead vocal and the chorus, which overlaps, it's impossible for her to do all that singing live on stage," Kelly says. "She can sing. I've seen her sing. I think the Saturday Night Live mishap is unfortunate, but it's not going to hurt her career. She could get more publicity out of it."

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