Read my lips!: The sing-along history of lip-syncing, from Soundies to Milli Vanilli to Beyoncé

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Memorex ran a popular ad campaign for their blank cassette tapes, asking “is it live, or is it Memorex?” Memorex tapes may be long gone, but the question has taken on new significance. When some event happens such as the Super Bowl, the Grammys, and the Oscars, the question now lingers: is it live, or is it lip synced? Beyoncé experienced the repercussions of her lip syncing the national anthem at President Barack Obama’s inauguration; as she later performed her Super Bowl halftime extravaganza, social media lit up with speculation that Beyoncé was faking her vocals once again.

The Beyoncé situation begs the question: when did lip syncing attract scorn and suspicion? Why do listeners often become enraged after discovering that artists often use backing tracks for live performances? Past dance shows such as American Bandstand and Soul Train commonly had guests mime their latest hits, while variety shows such as Solid Gold had singers crooning along with a seemingly invisible band.

Yet one major scandal pulled back the curtain on lip syncing, twisting it into a tool for duping music fans. How did we reach this point, and are we expecting absolute perfection from artists?

Lip syncing dates back to the earliest days of music videos, when short films called “Soundies” were filmed for coin-operated film jukeboxes called Panorams. For mere pennies, fans could enjoy their favorite bands “singing” their latest hits. Stars of the 1940s such as Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, Doris Day, and Gene Krupa all filmed Soundies, which also featured dancers and sometimes silly skits. Technology eventually pushed these early clips aside in favor of the Scopitone, an advanced jukebox that accepted color film. Originating in France, Scopitone videos offered more elaborate productions, but still consisted of artists lip syncing to their newest singles. Nancy Sinatra’s go-go moves with boot-shod backup dancers perfectly illustrated “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” while Procol Harum’s surreal images complimented the hallucinatory feel of “A Whiter of Pale.”

Scopitones gradually lost to television, as teen dance shows like American Bandstand and Top of the Pops rose to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s respectively. The Ed Sullivan Show still featured live performances (although the Beatles provided them with music videos when they could not appear on the show, where they mimed their performances of “Rain” and “Paperback Writer”), but most variety shows involved lip syncing due to logistics and royalty disputes. According to Marc Weingarten, author of Station to Station: The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll on Television, show producers remained unclear about the fee for an artist’s live performance, so lip syncing became the rage. Early on, Soul Train stood out for encouraging artists to play live renditions of their hits; Barry White’s 1975 appearance halted this practice, however. To accommodate his Love Unlimited Orchestra, the entire Soul Train set had to be altered to fit all 40 musicians. After that, certain artists such as Luther Vandross may have elected to sing to a prerecorded backing track, but most mimed their performances. Some 1970s music shows retained the live sound, though, such as Midnight Special, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and the WTTW Chicago program Soundstage.

One of the earliest so-called lip syncing controversies occurred in 1967, when critics accused made-for-TV-band The Monkees of not playing their own instruments. While they supplied only vocals for their earliest albums, they played live during tours and took complete control over their own music beginning with the landmark album Headquarters. Initially labeled the “Pre-Fab Four,” the Monkees gradually overcame the charges and proved themselves more than adequate singers, songwriters, and musicians. Their popularity did not suffer during the height of the controversy, meaning screaming fans cared little whether they plucked every guitar string or banged on every drum part.

MTV changed many aspects of the music industry, and live performance was one of these factors. Elaborate music videos featuring complicated choreography, exotic locations, and extremely photogenic bands ruled the channel; as with Soundies and Scoptones, singers mouthed lyrics and the band pretended to play their instruments. In pre-cable days, music fans saw their favorite bands through variety shows such as Solid Gold, where all performances were mimed. Once music videos dominated the television and music landscape, fans expected artists to virtually replicate the opulence of their clips onstage. Thus, singers like Madonna and Michael Jackson began implementing prerecorded tracks in their stage shows, not able to remain on key and execute complicated dance routines simultaneously. In a similar move, Jackson opted to lip synch “Billie Jean” during his landmark Motown 25 appearance, presumably so he could focus on his equally important moves. Viewers seemed to tolerate the “Memorex” vocals, and some acts hardly bothered hiding the fact that they were not singing live. (See the Beastie Boys’ gymnastics while they “rap” during their 1987 American Bandstand appearance.)

Then came two words that forever altered the practice of lip-synching: Milli Vanilli.

The story is familiar to any 80s music fan — or at least a regular watcher of VH1’s Behind the Music. In 1988, German music producer Frank Farian hired studio veterans to lay down vocals on the single “Girl You Know It’s True,” but felt they lacked MTV-friendly looks. Thus he hired models/dancers Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan to be the faces of Milli Vanilli, miming the vocals in videos and select “live” performances. Their debut 1989 album Girl You Know It’s True (originally released as All or Nothing in Europe the previous year) became a massive hit, spawning successful singles and garnering them the coveted Best New Artist Grammy. The original singers were never credited, leading fans to believe Pilatus and Morvan to be the true artists. Doubts began surfacing when the duo conducted interviews, their thick German accents sounding nothing like the voices on the records. Next came a disastrous live performance in Bristol, Connecticut, when the prerecorded track to “Girl You Know It’s True” began skipping, causing a humiliated Pilatus to run offstage. The final straw came when a December 1989 New York Newsday article published an interview with one of the original studio singers, revealing that the models/dancers were not genuine vocalists. Lawsuits ensued, Milli Vanilli returned their Grammy, and fans felt angry at being duped.

After the scandal, the public began looking closely at every seemingly live performance, from concerts to the Super Bowl to the Grammys. Complaints surfaced that Madonna lip synched during her Blonde Ambition tour, particularly during the more theatrical or dance-heavy sections of the show. Speculation swirled that Jackson did not sing during his 1993 Super Bowl halftime extravaganza.

Dance music fell under similar scrutiny in 1990 when collectives Black Box and C+C Music Factory used a model to lip sync the vocals of veteran singer Martha Wash. She successfully sued both acts for failing to credit her. That same year, Technotronic used a similar technique by inserting a beautiful model into the video for “Pump Up the Jam”; she mimed the rapping of the apparently less photogenic Ya Kid K.

An interesting exception during this time is Whitney Houston, who lip synced her now iconic 1991 rendition of the national anthem for the Super Bowl. Many cite Houston’s performance as one of the best renditions in history, but seemingly forgot that she did not sing the words live. Despite that anomaly, Milli Vanilli forever embedded skepticism into the minds (and ears) of the listener. In the wake of the scandal, MTV’s Unplugged series debuted; while not cited as an inspiration for the show’s creation, the show became a showcase for artists wanting to prove they were more than just studio creations. Stripped down to all-acoustic instruments with no apparent vocal trickery, singers such as Mariah Carey could display their unembellished voices and ability to perform live. Authenticity thus became a key term in popular music.

As skepticism grew, critics and audiences quickly pounced upon anyone who relied on backing tracks during concerts or major events. Some fans stormed out of Britney Spears’ Australia shows on her 2009 Circus tour, claiming she relied heavily on lip syncing. Pop princess Ashlee Simpson was outed during her 2004 Saturday Night Live appearance, when she began mouthing the words to her song “Autobiography” as the first track she performed, “Pieces of Me,” accidentally began playing. Later blaming a nasty bout with acid reflux, she attempted to rebuild her career, which never quite recovered after the very public mishap. Beyoncé’s decision to lip sync the national anthem forced her to do damage control, singing the song live during a subsequent press conference. That act failed to prevent viewers from scrutinizing every aspect of her Super Bowl halftime show, looking for any sign of “faking it.”

In the wake of the Beyoncé incident, Grammy producers stressed that they have a “zero tolerance” policy for lip syncing before the February 10, 2013 telecast. A Los Angeles Times article quoted Grammy audio director Michael Abbott, explaining “since Milli Vanilli, the mandate has been made absolutely unequivocally. The Grammys only have live performances, no questions about it.” But that hasn’t stopped fans from citing the flawless vocals of Usher, Pink, and Chris Brown — all while performing virtual acrobatics.

Why are 2013 audiences quicker to criticize lip syncing than 1950s fans? Perhaps modern listeners expect perfection — they want music videos recreated onstage with impressive dancing and nonstop entertainment. At the same time, they want flawless singing. With the advent of Auto-Tune, fans want assurance that the artists aren’t simply studio-only creations, but bonafide talents. Milli Vanilli illustrated how relatively easy it can be to fool the general public, and those who spent hard-earned money on albums, concerts, and souvenirs felt slick music executives took distinct advantage of their trust. Therefore, modern audiences vowed to be smarter and quickly expose any phonies.

But should Beyoncé be condemned for her decision to lip sync? Even Aretha Franklin rushed to her defense, claiming she would have reached the same decision due to the cold weather and any sound problems. Jay Leno’s current bandleader, Rickey Minor, produced many Super Bowl pregame shows, and told the Associated Press in 2009 that he advised artists not to sing live. “That’s the right way to do it,” he said. “There’s too many variables to go live. I would never recommend any artist go live because the slightest glitch would devastate the performance.” Tools like Auto-Tune have turned artists into flawless automatons, leading audiences to expect the same level of perfection in person.

The Milli Vanilli scam left undeniable scars on the music industry; in addition, it violated trust between fans and artists. Whether watching a Grammy telecast, attending a concert, or viewing the inauguration, we closely study performers, tweeting about any perceived flaw–or, in some cases, too few flaws. In some ways, our expectation of perfection may have partially caused the need for lip syncing. However, Beyoncé’s performance does not signal another Milli Vanilli episode–instead, it concerned the rather unartistic, unsexy theme of logistics.

Is it live, or is it Memorex? That question should be asked, but occasionally we must ask the same of ourselves: do we tend to prefer taped perfection over possible live imperfections? We may have been duped before, but quickly judging every lip syncing incident as intentionally deceitful does not guarantee authenticity. By demanding constant perfection, we may be deceiving ourselves.

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Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.