Miming, Lip-Syncing and how it all became a Non-Issue

When I think about the many ways music has changed over the years, there has always been this one particular issue that nags at me, as if to say, “you're never going to figure this out, so don't bother.” However, I'm far too hard-headed to give up that easily so I keep mulling over the same handful of incidents that, in my mind, tie together to form a conundrum that I simply cannot explain. Truthfully, I've mostly accepted that I will never figure this out simply because people often do things that cannot be explained with cold logic. As often as I've tried to wrap my head around it, I can't seem to understand how or why lip-syncing and mimed live performance has become a complete non-issue for most music fans. I'll admit to being a bit of an idealist, but how did our standard in regard to these practices collectively shift from “absolutely not” to “sure, we don't mind” so quickly?

The first incident I can recall of lip-syncing receiving a major backlash goes all the way back to the early 90s when a couple model/dancers who went by “Milli Vanilli” were lambasted for not actually singing their songs. Months earlier at one of their concerts, the backing track that they mimed to started skipping and it didn't take very long for word to spread that the duo were “impostors”. This is in spite of the fact that people in attendance at that particular show did not seem to notice or care that they were watching people mime to a recording. The media backlash surrounding this incident caused a then-successful R&B group to not only be dropped from their label, but to be stripped of a Grammy award. In 1998, one of the group's members, Rob Pilatus, killed himself because he was never able to come to terms with his shame after being outed as a “phony” in spite of the fact that he could actually sing.

Fast forward a few years and we have Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live opening her mouth after the wrong words came through the P.A. system. Obviously embarrassed, she danced a silly jig and left the stage, cutting the performance short. She later blamed the incident on her band, claiming they started playing the wrong song. While this event did not drive her to suicide, it did in fact prove to be a blow to her music career. While still in the music business, (probably because of family ties, but that's speculative) she is now a largely forgotten punchline and future trivia question, all because she was caught lip-syncing and tried to lie about it. I can't help wondering if she was flanked by scantily-clad backup dancers, would anyone have even noticed?

For today's pop star, lip-syncing is all part of the show and their fans are not only fine with it, but expect it. People gladly shell out their hard-earned money to watch people dance to a recording for a couple hours. Praise is heaped upon pop artists for simply writing their own songs, slowly driving working musicians to madness and/or drug and alcohol abuse. Now let's jump in the “way-back machine” and travel to the dawn of modern Rock music and shows like “Top of the Pops” where everyone from The Monkees to Black Sabbath jumped on-stage and mimed their current hits for a crowd of dancing teenagers. Why was there no backlash then? My guess is that either no one noticed or cared or perhaps it was merely accepted as the way things were done for television. A strong case for the latter is made upon the realization that everything from Super Bowl halftime shows to Olympic ceremonies are peppered with mimed performances from professional musicians. No one even bothers to mention when lip-syncing occurs at these events except for a few people on Internet forums.

The collective opinion of music fans on the issue of lip-syncing has made an almost complete 180 degree turn in a little over 20 years. The media has gone from inciting angry mobs and having awards stripped from acts as if they were Olympic athletes caught using steroids, to completely ignoring the practice and cheering wildly when a pop singer comes out as having a single writing credit on their own album. However, I'm not sure this change of opinion is just the fault of the media. More and more music fans expect nothing more from their favorite artists than something slick and polished to dry-hump each other to; basically Disco. As long as the bass is loud and the beat is repetitive, most people are right on board with it and could not care any less who is (or isn't) performing it live.

This isn't necessarily because people are “being told” to like certain artists over others, they're just choosing the more superficial stuff and there is absolutely nothing that any one of us can do about that. People are generally stressed out and don't see much hope for the future, so they're attracted to songs about “living it up” as if this is your last night on Earth. As musicians, we can strive to create greater art and a more positive, intelligent influence on listeners or we can try to make money. We live within a system where our debts have driven us to compromise our ideals, why should we expect our art to be unaffected? There is no point in trying to argue with anyone over their music tastes or trying to convince them that what they're listening to is devoid of intelligence. Don't bother trying to drive home the point that popular music is filling them with the idea that they should only party and buy the newest products because most people aren't trying to hear it; they just want to dance and the guys in suits are well aware of that.

All in all, I think I've got this nagging issue figured out once and for all. Beyond being the “universal language” that we mostly all enjoy in some way or another, Music is a way for us to escape and just be entertained without having to think too much. No two people, no matter how similar, are exactly alike. Where some of us enjoy having problems to ponder over and relax by solving puzzles, some of us just want to unwind by hitting things with sticks and laughing at our own farts. For the most part, no one ever really cared about lip-syncing. It was an issue created and subsequently destroyed by the media in order to draw attention to their publications and make more money. Musicians have strong opinions on the issue because most of us resent the fact that people can get paid obscene amounts of money for pretending to do the things that we've worked very hard to learn. It's an understandable and frankly, justified outlook, but it doesn't change anything.

The average music fan just wants to be entertained, they really don't care how it's done and as much as it begrudges me as a musician to say this; there's not really anything wrong with that in and of itself. We all have brainless activities that we enjoy and there's truly no accounting for taste. A pop artist miming the words to a song that someone else wrote for them while dozens of dancers gyrate beneath colored lights isn't much different than a Las Vegas show full of people impersonating long-dead Comedians and Actors. The cold, hard truth is that no matter how much we fight it, lip-syncing is not going away until people stop being mesmerized by shiny things and overt sexuality; don't hold your breath on that happening any time soon.

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