30 Years Ago: The Fall of Milli Vanilli
Today in 1990, producers confirmed that Milli Vanilli did not sing on their debut album, "Girl You Know It's True"
Today’s edition of Today In History is adapted from an entry in my book The Encyclopedia of Misinformation.
The story of the rise and fall of Milli Vanilli is a faustian tale that scarcely needs repeating. But for the sake of clarity: In 1990 a dance-pop duo from Munich bolted to the top of the charts with their debut album Girl You Know It’s True, going septuple platinum and winning a Grammy for Best New Artist. At the peak of their fame, 30 years ago today, their producer revealed the pretty-boy performers did not sing a single note on their debut album and they lip-synced their hits in concert. They eventually became subjects in the very first episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, and months later, one member died from a pill overdose.
Those are the major plot points in the story arc that is Milli Vanilli. But this account fails to capture the loudest and most prominent aspect of the story — moral outrage. One might expect a band caught bluffing their voices to endure punchlines from late-night television, but the public flogging of Milli Vanilli far exceeded comic chiding. The duo became instant villains, symbols of the scourge of fakery sweeping society. Cultural arbiters furiously cranked up the sanctimony, portraying the duo as harbingers of moral decline — a society on the brink of collapse under the weight of artificiality. In a panic of authenticity, Milli Vanilli were forced to return their Grammy statue.
Of course, nothing about the music had changed. “Blame It On the Rain” was still catchy/corny R&B, “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” was still infectious dance pop, and both (plus the title song) remained number one hits. The only thing that changed was their public image. They were now fraudulent, in the eyes of pious critics.
And only pious critics. Fans of the band were not riled by the disclosure. During a concert in Connecticut, for instance, a backing track started to skip at the most inopportune moment, repeating the line “girl you know it—,” “girl you know it—,” “girl you know it—,” over and over. The audience cared not one lick that they were lip-synching, but the malfunction set off a wave of media hysteria about musical integrity.
The reactionary loudmouths conveniently overlooked the obvious: Artificiality is a defining characteristic of the entertainment industry. Popular music largely exists to manufacture image and fantasy. Audrey Hepburn did not sing on My Fair Lady; Natalie Wood never crooned West Side Story. Even the most credible acts — the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Black Sabbath, the Sex Pistols — lip-synced their songs on Top of the Pops. Svengali producers have crafted countless waxworks through the years, from the Backstreet Boys and Josie & the Pussycats. The Monkees, who were formed through television auditions, did not play their own instruments until their third record. Critics called them the Pre-Fab Four, but fans cared not.
Pop music is media manipulation, from top to bottom, sound to image. The debut album from the Village People also used studio vocalists — and four of the six members weren’t even gay!
Today more than ever, music is assembled in the studio, by a horde of producers and songwriters and engineers. Even critically regarded acts like Drake and Rihanna have collaborator credit sheets longer than Leviticus. Rumors of secret studio vocalists pervade the industry, but few have been caught. Everyone from Lady Gaga to Tim McGraw uses autotune. Vocal comping — splicing together the best syllables from hundreds of takes — is just how albums get made now.
Everyone knows these things, yet the gotcha game of catching the cultural impurity has thrived until recently. Sanctimony hit its high note in 1990, with a combination of the Milli Vanilli scandal and Whitney Houston’s lip-synced performance at the Super Bowl. The stigma has slowly eroded ever since. By 2013, when Beyonce received blowback for lip-syncing at the inauguration of Barack Obama, she could just brush it off — priggish controversies about authenticity had become a rite of passage. Fans now have the final say, and they can shrug off the pious commentators.
Ultimately, the fakest thing about Milli Vanilli was the charade of moral outrage about Milli Vanilli.
Girl, you know it’s true.
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