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Lip Service: The question of authenticity and pop music

In 2001 I went to see Madonna on the Drowned Tour (her best of the decade, maybe ever) and in 1999 I went to see Janet Jackson on the Velvet Rope Tour. It was odd. Both are very physical, dance oriented performances but whereas Jackson was sometimes out of breath and you could hear her gasping for air, Madonna wasn’t once. Here is why: Madonna had tapes of herself singing that played when she needed a break. It is the only humanly possible way for ANYONE to dance and sing simultaneously on that level and not huff and puff.

In 2004, Ashley Simpson was singing live on Saturday Night Live when she lost her place and stopped singing, unfortunately the tape of her voice kept on playing. She ran off the stage in tears.

In 2009 I went to see Britney Spears on her “Circus” tour. I have no doubt she was not singing through the majority of the concert.

Marie Lynn saw Taylor Swift at the CMA country festival and said Taylor was not in tune at first and that by the end of the set she was lip syncing. On this performance from SNL Taylor is not lipsyncing but her voice is not so hot:

In 1964, Audrey Hepburns’ singing voice is dubbed by Marni Nixon.

In 2000, John McMillian writes in the New York Press that Bruce Springsteen sponged his arms between songs in order to fake sweat pouring off him.

In 1995, Courtney Love playing an MTV Unplugged set at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music comes back after the final encore to replay “Softer, Softest” -emotionally devastating the first time around, just as good an hour later.

In 2006, it was announced that back up singers hid in the wings to sing the high notes for John Lloyd Young during his performances as Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys” on Broadway.

In 1998, Rob Pilatus after being forced to admit he was only the public face of Milli Vanilli and didn’t sing on any of their songs, succeeds in killing himself in the second time attempt.

What constitutes authenticity here? Once the talkies instituted lip syncing as the rule of the land the question as to what is real and what is not has been exceedingly murky. But how much did it really matter? From Warhol’s found art to Damien Hirst’s dead art, the signature on the bottom line was the mark of the real. But in the world of music, and certainly in the wake of the songwriter singing his own songs, faking it is considered a big no no.

This is the rock music lie of course. Popular music is a consumed form of entertainment: what is the difference between Courtney Love faking her deepest emotions and Springsteen faking his sweat? If Taylor Swift can do everything BUT sing what is to stop her from faking her own vocals.

When the Monkees first came out they were plagued by the question of whether they were really a group but today it is a meaningless question: if there is a synthesizer there may be no live horns. Does that make the use of a synthesiser a harbinger of lies yet to come or is popular music with its infinite number of overdubbing all false?

It feels like there is no TRUTH left in music but the truth is still there, it simply lies in another place. It lies in manufacturing sounds that under no circumstances can be replicated live because there is nothing live there to replicate. So we went from lip syncing the movies, to highly authentic rock and roll shows, to recorded stadium productions, to lip synced rock shows.

But none of this has the feel of sacrilege because rock doesn’t have the feel of religion anymore. The distance between picking up your guitar and playing a song to a big time product is the distance between writing a script and watching “Transformers” at IMAX. As Lennon put it: “Nothing is real”.

If Taylor Swift was caught claiming a song she wrote was written by someone else that would be plagiarism and if she was caught lip syncing to somebody elses voice, that would be fraud. But what is it if you are using your own voice because your own voice isn’t strong enough to sustain a concert? It seems wrong and yet it isn’t wrong. The product mass entertainer Swift is pushing is herself, her fan base would absolutely accept her not singing during a concert for the pleasure of seeing her in person. The medium here is indeed the message.

But what if it was U2? There is always the sense in their stadium tour of the big production getting in the way of the music. If so some of the music is pre-recorded and all the choreography and special effects are on a pre-determined schedule, what is real in the presentation (and where lies the improvisation at the heart of live rock?) I mean, any realer than say “Phantom Of The opera” on Broadway. The lemon is always going to open seven minutes and 20 seconds into the set, the chandelier is always going to drop at the end of the second act. And anyway, what does Bono feel when he sings “One” for the millionth time? As Juliana Hatfield noted in her memoir, when you sing a song over and over again the words become meaningless and it’s the synchronization of sounds that matters.

Elton John once said the difference between him and Madonna was he actually performed live in concert. But so what? If that’s what you want, if you wanna see Branford Marsalis or Ornette Coleman or Titus Andronicus play live then go and see them but if you want to see Madonna you will get an experience much closer to theatre.

In 2009, music is virtual reality and the question of authenticity is irrelevant. It’s the difference between MP3s and vinyl. Yeah, maybe if you’re Neil Young you miss the hiss and pop of vinyl but if you are an average music lover you really don’t care. Maybe piano men Elton John and Billy Joel entering the stadium to the piped sound of “Pomp And Circumstance” are realer than Milli Vanilli but they are also a different product entirely.

If Damien Hirst can stick a shark in formaldehyde and call it art where do we draw the line?In my post just before this one I included a link to Kalefa Sanneh’s New Yorker article on Michael Jackson. Let’s say I cut and pasted it and said it was mine. That would be plagiarism. Now let’s say Kalefa gave me permission to cut and paste it and claim it was mine. What would it be then? An ironic commentary reflecting its subject matter? An artistic statement on the transitory nature of intellectual possession? Everything is justifiable in a virtual world -where virtual writing and virtual rock criticism takes the place of the real thing and virtual photos by virtual people are virtually posted without permission and without payment.

What got me started on this post was a couple of conversations about whether Taylor Swift was a fake. The answer is, yes she is but it doesn’t matter. Sift is the product that she is. If Rob Platius was still alive he would have a younger man playing him on tour and the young man would be lip syncing to somebody else’s voice entirely while Platius sat in the wings till it was time for him to pickup his Grammies and commissions.

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