In Defense of Milli Vanilli

Mar 12th, 2015 | By | Category: Deep Thoughts, Essays

Beck vs BeyonceEveryone knows the story by now. When Beck’s Morning Phase won the Grammy for Best Album of 2014, Kanye bum rushed the stage, but strolled off before grabbing the mic. At first, many took it as a joke about the Taylor Swift incident (no idea why anyone would expect Kanye to be self-deprecating), but Kanye later made his view clear:

“Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé, and at this point, we tired of it. Because what happens is, when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in their face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration.”

Obviously, it was Kanye who was disrespectful, attempting to impose his own immaculate taste on everyone else (and I’ve never understood why he thinks Beyoncé needs him to defend her). Much to everyone’s amazement, he later apologized:

But the incident raises interesting questions about how we define artistry, as seen in the image above (and associated Reddit discussion) comparing the number of people who worked on the two albums. According to romantic ideals, art is self-expression, so we are obviously supposed to believe Beck is the more authentic artist since he did it all himself. I really like Beck’s album, have certainly played it more than Beyonce’s, but I do not buy this argument. What really matters, how many people worked on an album behind the scenes or the music that comes out of the speakers?

Similarly, I never understood the big deal about the Milli Vanilli scandal. In 1988, Milli Vanilli released “Girl You Know It’s True” in Europe, soon followed by the album All or Nothing. A partially remade, remixed and re-titled version of the album was released in the States a year later as Girl You Know It’s True (my review of the album). It went platinum six times over. Five singles from the album hit the Top 10, three of them rose to number one, two went platinum, two gold. Milli Vanilli was awarded the Grammy for Best New Artist on February 22, 1990. Before the end of the year the Grammy was withdrawn.

Why? Well, it turns out the songs were sung by Charles Shaw, John Davis, Brad Howell, Jodie and Linda Rocco, not Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, the two models/dancers who posed on the cover of the album and lip synced the songs in videos and during “live” appearances (for more on lip syncing).

Sure, no one likes to be fooled, but what explains the intensity of the reaction, such that over 20 consumer fraud lawsuits were filed against their record label, Arista?

Wasn’t Girl You Know It’s True the exact same recording these now ex-fans had loved before the revelation? Had the music itself changed in any way when Rob and Fab were outed as lip syncing front men for a production team (although they were awarded best new artists, not best new single, so there is a slightly more legitimate claim of deception). All that really happened was that Milli Vanilli’s secret identity was exposed as producer/songwriter Frank Farian, who had created the song in the studio and then found someone to be its public face. Just as he had done before with Boney M’s “Baby Do You Wanna Bump?”

There is actually a long tradition of this in popular music. Although not a Crystal, Darlene Love sang lead on several of their recordings with Phil Spector. The Monkees, in many ways the Milli Vanilli of their day, were put together through a casting call, chosen more for their appearance and acting than their musical ability (yes, they sang their songs, but they did not play their instruments until the third album).

Even the ultimate indie darlings, the Velvet Underground, owe their very existence to this strategy. Lou Reed and John Cale met when Reed’s bosses at Pickwick Records, which specialized in cheap rip-offs of popular trends, needed a band to play high schools to promote Reed’s ridiculous, but campy fun dance record, “Do the Ostrich.” Johnny Rotten auditioned for the Sex Pistols by lip syncing to Alice Cooper records on the jukebox in Malcolm McLaren’s store, Sex (for more on lip syncing and law suits).

But that’s not AUTHENTIC!

William Wordsworth wrote, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . .”

Is that how we judge authenticity in pop music, in terms of raw emotion? We hear that a lot in regard to so-called “soul” music, that it is the unmediated expression of, well, the soul. If so, are musicians supposed to feel heartbreak every time they sing songs of heartbreak? Are they method singers who are supposed to go back to the moment that inspired the song? Can you “rehearse” emotion? Or is it just a performance?

There are few shows slicker than a traditional soul concert. Everything is planned. James Brown may have grunted and shouted, but he fined his band for every wrong note or missed step. They were rigorously trained professionals.

What about performers who sing songs written by others? Neither Elvis nor Frank Sinatra wrote his own songs; guess they’re not true artists. Is Willie Nelson’s demo of “Crazy” the authentic version? Possibly, but I’d sure rather listen to Patsy Cline singing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Willie would, too. Do demos in general give us unmediated exposure and insight into an artist’s true self or are they simply rough drafts?  What happened to craft?

Taking it even further, does technique mask real emotion? Is it just affectation? This is the “outsider art” argument that raw expression is more important than technique. (How many punks have been declared “careerist” sell outs simply because they finally learned to play their instruments? Wouldn’t it have been inauthentic to continue to play poorly?) Don’t get me wrong, I really like a lot of that raw expression, but have we really reached a point where musical talent and skill are seen as liabilities?

Have we forgotten the second part of Wordsworth’s definition of poetry: “. . . it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Finally, if the ultimate test of artistic authenticity is “self expression,” doesn’t that render the listener irrelevant? Doesn’t that turn us all into artistic voyeurs (ecouteurs?)?


note — Yes, I am well aware of the irony that the stories I have included make it very clear that I do indeed care about the artists who write and sing the songs. In fact, I am reading a musician’s autobiography right now, Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, and just finished another, Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys. But I would not be interested in the creation of my favorite music if the music had not grabbed my interest in the first place.

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2 Comments to “In Defense of Milli Vanilli”

  1. Jim Laugelli says:

    Great piece Mark. Authenticity seems to be a term that carries a lot weight for music fans in particular. How each of those individual fans define authenticity can vary quite substantially. For many of the first wave of punks it had to do with the raw emotion to which you speak. This view holds that to take back rock musicians needed street credibility. They had to have lived or directly felt the harshness of life that fans were experiencing. This in turn inspired an entire generation of kids to pick up an instrument and form a band. No musical training necessary, just life experience. And it worked. For others, authenticity is about the ability to successfully tell the story of the song. It may be something you lived personally or how well you can get into the character of the song. This view has a more actorly perspective but is no less real. You can hear this in a lot of country music and it does not require the performer to be the writer of the song. The backlash against Milli Vanilli had more to do with deception than authenticity. Oddly, the anger seemed directed solely against the two members of the band, who if you think about it were only doing the job for which they were hired, and little to nothing against the people behind it all. Likewise, punks who saw people or musicians adopting their style to cash in were considered inauthentic – posers. Again it is the deception that seems to be the offense.

  2. Andrew says:

    I agree with you, but it wouldn’t hurt if Beyoncé’s singing and pre-written songs were actually pleasant to listen to. Elvis and Sinatra were true vocal performers and entertainers, but that’s really about it. I guess Sinatra was decent at acting, too. All I care about is whether what’s coming out of my speakers sounds good.

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