Life Just Bounces don't you get worried at all. (A weblog of music and otrogenerica)

Monday, 24 August 2009

In defence of Milli Vanilli (or: towards an authentic fakeness)

Reading a BBC piece the other day about the legendary "miming vocalist" fallout surrounding Black Box's 1989 hit "Ride on Time", i got to thinking that Milli Vanilli got a pretty raw deal out of their whole experience with same. The point's been made before that their biggest crime was essentially being twenty years ahead of their time (see this DKPresents piece for a concise and interesting precis). But was it? Or was it more serious for MV that they failed to pay lip service to pop culture's bizarre and uneven obsession with "authenticity"?

Universal Pictures currently has a Milli Vanilli biopic in development. Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson told Variety that “I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of fakes and frauds, and in this case, you had guys who pulled off the ultimate con, selling 30 million singles and 11 million albums and then becoming the biggest laughing-stocks of pop entertainment.”

"The biggest laughing stocks of pop entertainment"? Really? After all, everyone from Britney Spears to the Antares hip-hop movement1 to Yo-Yo Ma is Milli Vanilli nowadays, and no-one's suggesting narcotically-assisted slow suicide as a suitable penance.2 No-one's ever excoriated Jack Nicholson for not actually being a tormented wife-terrorising failed writer living in a decrepit hotel in the middle of nowhere. And anyone whose dreams were shattered upon finding out that Johnny Depp is not in real life a flouncy dreadlocked buccaneer has only himself to blame; Walt Disney Studios is not accountable for "misleading" him.

Much of the discourse around Milli Vanilli has the "disgraced" group being "stripped of their Grammy" for "trying to fool" the listening audience. But surely this only holds true if you're the kind of person that believes Mike Batt should be done for fraud because an actual Womble is not vocalising on "Remember You're A Womble". Is it really that hard to comprehend that artistic spectacles aren't meant as literal truth? In the press, Milli Vanilli are now framed exclusively as a hoax, or even an elaborate practical joke (witness their entry on the Museum of Hoaxes website and J. Nathanson's "ultimate con" quip above). But the NYT article quoted above that broke the "stripped of Grammy" story even includes these paragraphs:

Virtually all recorded music is the product of studio manipulation. Classical albums are typically pieced together from the best of multiple takes of a work; even live albums, classical and popular, are often patched up to correct wrong notes. Most popular music is created on multi-track tape that allows dozens of separate elements to be perfected and combined.

Dance-pop like Milli Vanilli's album can be recorded with the efforts of a small group of people. A single songwriter-producer can generate all of the instrumental sounds, from computerized drums to synthetic horns. All that needs to be added is human voices, so it is possible that only the producer, the recording engineer and the performers would know who appeared on the album.

So it's not like this was some great shady record company conspiracy; it was all out in the open even then. The pained howls of dimwit Proper Music™ enthusiasts about how the sonic reality of Girl, You Know It's True does not exactly correspond with the physical movements made in the studio during its creation should thus be ignored as epic point-missing at best. To consider the very nature of performing on electrified instruments artificially amplified over a public address system for an audience larger than could possibly ever assemble to hear such an ensemble play "naturally"3 just emphasises that the stadium cock-rock of, say, Pearl Jam or Stereophonics, is exactly as (in)authentic as Milli Vanilli were. But, for whatever reason, only one of these inauthenticities must be censured as "artificial" or "dishonest".

No, Milli Vanilli's real mistake was to trick an establishment whose authenticity game they weren't playing into rewarding them with its highest totem, The Mighty Grammy Award. When the Grammies' inadvertent endorsement of MV was discovered, someone was going to have to fall on a sword just to restore and reperpetuate the authenticity illusion. After all, if they hadn't, someone might have pointed out that Girl You Know It's True was, qualitatively and content-wise, exactly the same record the day after the miming revelation that it was the day before. The group were stripped of the Grammy not because of a reconsideration of the work's merit, but because of an arbitrary political decision regarding the process of its fabrication.

Maybe they should just have been blatantly up-front about it. i used to be in a group called Saigon High Chair Pirates, and like all good groups, we had a theme song. In the middle of "Theme from Saigon High Chair Pirates" (maybe the "middle eight", who the fuck even knows what that actually means tho) we included a repeating vocal vamp with harmonies saying "Saigon, ooh yeah baby!" — a classic pop hook, i think you'll agree. At the point in the song, the three of us (the other two now have a different band) would step up to the mics, let our instruments hang by the straps, and perform handclaps along with the vocal harmony. This would carry on for a couple of bars, after which time we'd slowly start to back off from the mics — still singing, still doing the hand claps — while the vocals, pre-recorded and mimed all along, carried on without us. This always got a laugh, but i was always secretly hoping we'd have baited a more guillible audience member into protesting that we'd been miming our whole set.

Maybe Milli Vanilli should have had women mime the male vocals. Or been accompanied onstage by a ludicrous backing band armed with instruments obviously incapable of producing the sounds coming out of the speakers: say, one guy with a set of cardboard boxes of various sizes arranged and mimed as if a real drum kit, one guy struggling to carry an eight-foot wooden railway sleeper ("bass guitar") above his head, one guy with a toilet bowl strapped around his body like a sousaphone with a fifteen-foot length of hose coming out the back attached to a baritone sax mouthpiece at the other end. (For example). That would more clearly have said, "These guys clearly aren't playing this shit. We're not singing it either. Enjoy it for what it is or grow the fuck up and go listen to something you do like."

Or maybe it's time they got their own tribute band? All-female, probably. A tribute both to them and to their concept, the perfect isolation of song from performer. The pioneers who got scalped.

Twenty years. And we are where now?

mp3: Binary Star — "Reality Check"
mp3: Pumpkinhead — "Fake vs. Real"
mp3: Saigon High Chair Pirates — "Theme from Saigon High Chair Pirates"

1 Tangential note: calling for the "death of autotune" is like calling for the death of reverb, or the death of flutes. It's a completely inane, nonsensical generalisation.
2 Though in poor Britney's case, it's kind of a moot point.
3 i.e. free from such accoutrements.

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