Read her lips: Britney Spears is pissed and she wants credit. In a recent interview that ran on Israeli TV, the pop diva decried those who accuse her of lip-syncing. “A lot of people think that I don’t sing live,” Spears said. “Because I’m dancing so much I do have a little bit of playback, but there’s a mixture of my voice and the playback. It really pisses me off because I am busting my ass out there and singing at the same time and nobody ever really gives me credit for it.”
Actually, the reason a lot of people think Britney Spears doesn’t sing live is because there is ample audio-visual evidence that she doesn’t. Most recently, there was footage from a Tokyo show in which her vocals continued unaffected as she attempted to untangle hair that got caught in her mic, which at one point was nowhere near her face.
The superstar has been accused of lip-syncing live since virtually the beginning of her career—in 2000, her label Jive stopped servicing review tickets after a number of critics pointed out she lip-synced her entire 90-minute set, according to The Miami Herald. Whether it was a response to murmurs about her miming that dated back even earlier or merely to mark a special occasion, a press release was put out in 1999 announcing, “Britney Spears Sings (Does Not Lip Sync) On The Rosie O’Donnell Show on Monday, Sept. 27,” according to the Chicago-Sun Times. (Spears did indeed sing live during that appearance.)
Nevertheless, in advance of her Las Vegas residency, on October 4, 2013, Spears claimed on Chicago’s 103.5 KISS FM, “I’m definitely going to be singing live. I always sing live. It doesn’t sound so great all the time, but I do my best.” Spears’s manager would admit in 2014 that she, in fact, doesn’t always sing live—“She’s singing on every song, basically, when she has the ability to sing. There’s no way you can dance for 90 minutes straight and sing the entire time.”—and there was even earlier documentation of a mic-pac issue that left the vocal playing unaltered as her amplifier dangled from her body:
In fact, it’s more difficult to find footage where Spears definitively sings live than it is footage where she’s clearly lip-syncing. She does so for even momentous performances. Last summer, Britney Spears returned to the VMAs stage nine years after her last performance there, a widely mocked, lip-synced stumble through her single “Gimme More” in 2007. Her 2016 performance was hyped as her comeback, and resulted in the pop legend dancing with more conviction and craft than mass audiences had seen from Britney in the preceding decade. The medley of songs she performed spanning her career was also, you guessed it, entirely lip-synced.
People noticed the miming—Twitter reacted—and though Spears’s performance wasn’t universally acclaimed (“The less said about Ms. Spears’s flailing performance alongside G-Eazy, the better,” wrote Jon Caramanica in the New York Times), it received plenty of praise. “Fiery,” said Rolling Stone. “Triumphant,” said Time. “The comeback we’ve been waiting for,” said Complex. “Epic,” said Us Weekly. “Effective,” said Billboard. “Just fine,” said Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson.
To many, the lip-syncing simply didn’t matter, and that was telling in itself. Spears has matured right alongside shifting attitudes toward pop stars’ lip-syncing. The practice was once so scandalous, a number of states proposed laws to regulate it. In fact, if Spears had decided to take her show on the road, and brought this very VMAs performance just 230 miles north of Madison Square Garden to New Hampshire, her show’s promoter, ticket agent, and venue could have faced steep fines ($1,000 for an individual/$20,000 for companies) if they did not disclose in advance the lip-syncing that was to take place. That’s because in New Hampshire, still today, there’s a lip-syncing law.
Passed in 1992 and enacted in 1993, H.B. 1430 imposed “duties on promoters, places of musical entertainment and ticket agents to disclose whether all the lead vocals of a musical performance featuring vocals are pre-recorded.” I’ve found no evidence of it being enforced—when I contacted representatives for the North American Concert Promoters Association, the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion, SNHU Arena in Manchester, N.H., and promoter Joe Fletcher (who worked in New Hampshire during the time the bill was enacted) all said they either hadn’t heard of the law or that they were never affected by it regardless. (Ticketmaster told me that they’d never received a question about this from a journalist, but after multiple requests for further comment, didn’t respond as to whether the company is aware of or followed the law.) It seems easy enough to skirt, anyway, as it would require proof of the promoter knowing in advance that lip-syncing would take place (and proving what someone else knew is no easy feat). Additionally, it only applies to shows in which “all the lead vocals of a musical performance” are lipped (emphasis mine), which even as lip-syncing taboos further dissolve over time, is still a rare thing. (Spears, in fact, is one of the few pop stars who’s been repeatedly accused of lip-syncing entire sets. Most who lip-sync do it here and there.)
H.B. 1430 is a relic of a time when lip-syncing was regarded as such a public ill, disdain for it spawned a series of so-called “Milli Vanilli bills” that were proposed by lawmakers in states such as New York, Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida, and Illinois. (From what I can tell by my research, none of these were ever voted in to law in any state but New Hampshire.) The first of such bills was proposed in New Jersey in May of 1990, by two New Jersey assemblymen, Neil M. Cohen and Joseph A. Mecca. Regarding a then-recent New York City stop on Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation World Tour, Cohen explained the bill’s rationale to USA Today: “People were paying for a live performance and not getting it.”
From then to now, from New Hampshire to New York, culture has come a long way. “It’s gone from shock to a shrug,” said New York Times pop music writer Jon Pareles when reached by phone earlier this year. “It used to be absolutely scandalous and now it’s like, ‘meh,’” said Edna Gundersen, also by phone, a journalist who’s covered music since before MTV and who wrote extensively about early ’90s lip-syncing controversies in USA Today. Pareles, too, wrote a prescient piece in 1989, “That Syncing Feeling,” that laid out the argument against the increasing use of lip-sync by pop stars in the live arena. Describing the reliance of canned vocals as “another of television’s cultural depredations—one more exchange of appearance for reality,” Pareles closed his argument with, “Like politicians mouthing their advisers’ slogans, [lip-syncing artists] decided that the only safe public appearance is a photo opportunity.” You can see how in 2017, when every millisecond of everybody’s lives is a potential shareable photo op, how this idea would be met with a shrug.
Before the shock waned, though, Pareles’s argument would spread and amplify as lip-sync scandal after lip-sync scandal rocked pop culture and its spectators. Even if you were paying attention at the time, the sheer amount of these allegations and all of the ink spilled over them is startling to look back at. It’s hard to imagine someone then with the amount of reach as Wendy Williams has now going on TV and saying, “There’s nothing wrong with lip-syncing. Look I will take a lip-sync any day. As long as I can see some, like, good dancing or carrying or something… Who needs to sing at a concert? What am I blowing out my vocals for you? You know I can sing. Buy a record.”
But that’s exactly what Wendy Williams said in January, responding to Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve “meltdown,” during which Carey didn’t sing a song she was supposed to (“Emotions”) or lip-sync the following song, as she was clearly supposed to. “This is the album version,” Carey announced as the piano introduction of “We Belong Together” played, effectively admitting to her audience her miming plan that she didn’t end up executing anyway, having already given up for the night before her stage time was over.
Good old lip-syncing. Like plastic surgery, so many do it; so few admit to it. (Except Cher, who’s been up front about indulging in both.) Though it’s less of a taboo than it once was, though people like Carey and Justin Bieber seem past the point of caring if people know when they’re doing it (Bieber’s lack of performative precision sometimes finds him pulling the mic away from his face before the verse is over, as his canned voice still plays on the speakers), it remains something like a dirty secret in the music industry.
The thing about lip-syncing, though, is that it can just as useful a tool for audiences as it is for artists. Through discussions about lip-syncing, pop listeners can square their expectations for entertainment with what is humanly possible from entertainers (who, nonetheless tend to strive for superhuman perfection). The most common explanation for the use of backing vocal tracks is that the sort of multi-threat spectacle now expected by audiences is just too difficult to pull off when sung entirely live.
When lip-syncing is obvious, as it almost always is for the discerning music viewer, it pulls back the curtain and makes tangible to civilians the considerable manufacturing that goes into celebrities’ live appearances. After all, mainstream, big-label pop music even in its most stereotypically “authentic” form—entirely live vocals supported by traditional instruments played by human hands and mouths—is a packaged product whose commercial aspirations are impossible to untangle from its artistic ones.
In fact, it was through a thorough enduring discussion of lip-syncing in the early ‘90s that mainstream media got an early, rather generous taste of the philosophy that has by now become the norm in critical thinking about music, poptimism. (Poptimism is a line of thinking that, broadly, takes pop music seriously, which necessarily involves at least acknowledging and often celebrating its so-called synthetic elements with the overall understanding that there is much more to the art of pop music than the music itself.) Although the public and thinkers of the early ’90s seemed mostly opposed to lip-syncing, the practice also had its outspoken defenders. “Pop concerts are no longer about virtuosity; they are theater, and the better shows seem to have healthy doses of recorded music and sound effects to bring the performance closer to the clarity and richness of a studio recording,” argued Peter Watrous in the thick of the lip-sync-scandal craze, the summer of 1990, in the New York Times. “Tapes can also free performers to flaunt their charisma, which is part of the fun of a concert anyway.” Similar arguments were presented in papers like The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
For better or worse, musical stardom and our understanding of it has evolved considerably in the last 30 years as a partial result of paying attention to the widespread practice of lip-syncing. Without lip-syncing, pop music would not be pop music as we have come to know and love it.
That lawmakers across the country devoted valuable time and citizen resources in the early ’90s to argue about the use of canned vocals in live settings is indicative of the intensity of the raging controversy surrounding lip-syncing at that time. MTV debuted in 1981, beaming the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and by the end of that decade, it would seem to purists that the Buggles’ cheeky prophecy had become reality. During the ’80s, the ostensible values of popular music had shifted away from the solely aural to increasingly accommodate the visual. The enormous success of good-looking, small-voiced pop stars like Madonna was proof positive that charisma could take a person just as far as what had been considered in simpler times as “musical talent.”
Granted, the act of lip-syncing in pop music is about as old as the idea of visualizing a song on television—classic shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train featured artist performances that were almost always canned (it’s cheaper to play the record than to mic a band, for one thing). The popularity of the music video only further normalized the practice in the ’80s, which otherwise abounded with iconic lip-synced moments like Tom Cruise’s underwear-clad romp through “Old Time Rock ‘n Roll” in Risky Business and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” performance at the Motown 25 concert in 1983, during which Jackson unveiled his signature moonwalk and launched his star into the stratosphere. When people reminisce about that performance, you don’t often hear them grousing about the lack of live singing. That’s beside the point of Jackson’s awe-inspiring spectacle.
In the live arena, the act of lip-syncing was less commonplace than on TV, thus more likely to shock audiences. Though Elvis Presley was said to have lip-synced shows toward the end of his life, it wasn’t until the late ’80s that the practice became commonplace enough to be discussed in mainstream media. What started the simmer that would soon boil furiously was an incident during a stop on 1989’s Club MTV Tour, in which Milli Vanilli’s prerecorded track started to skip, resulting in the infamous “Girl you know it’s—girl you know it’s—girl you know it’s—” moment recounted by group member Rob Pilatus on Behind the Music.
The following year, a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “It’s Lip-Synced, But Is It Fraud,” suggested that everyone on that tour with the exception of the band Was (Not Was) (of “Walk the Dinosaur” fame) used some measure of canned assistance. Group member (and legendary producer) Don Was presciently assessed his experience:
People aren’t going to shows to be absorbed in musical values, they’re going to be in the presence of celebrity. The tour was like open-air television in 3-D; it had nothing to do with music. The kinds of audiences these bands attract don’t care – you just start the lights flashing, you don’t even have to move your lips. They may as well have been holograms. That may well be the future: Stay at home and let the discs tour.
Welcome to the future, where there are indeed holograms performing live… or something like that.
The years of 1990 to 1992 saw a wave of lip-sync related controversies either related both to pop acts’ live and studio output. Almost all of the stars in question made dance-oriented music that relied (in many cases entirely) upon synthesizers—genre-wise, this type of material was already dubiously regarded by what would come to be known as a rockist mindset (that cared about “real” music made by “real” musicians playing “real” instruments) as fundamentally lesser.
Reviews of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation World Tour and Madonna’s Blond Ambition World Tour frequently mentioned suspicions of lip-syncing, but even pop’s objective best voice wasn’t immune from this type of scandal. Days after Super Bowl XXV in 1991, the news broke that the broadcast of Whitney Houston’s immediately iconic rendition of the national anthem before the game was actually actually prerecorded—Houston was singing along live and didn’t know that what the audience heard was canned, claimed pre-game executive producer Bob Best. Having a wondrous voice and absolutely nothing to prove where that was concerned, Houston didn’t deny the allegation—she merely explained to USA Today that “it was a necessary thing to do for the Super Bowl because of the acoustic problems (at the stadium).” (During this time period, Cher and Luciano Pavarotti were called out for lip-syncing during television appearances.)
There’s lip-syncing one’s own material, and then there’s moving your mouth to someone else’s voice, implicitly (and often explicitly) claiming it as your own. If the former scenario, all things considered, amounts to a white lie in the interest of public service, it is in the latter cases where things get dark. The most famous instance of this type of impersonation is Milli Vanilli, who from 1988 to 1990 scored a string of hit singles, sold millions of albums, and were well-regarded enough to win a Best New Artist Grammy. On November 15, 1990, the faces of the group, Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, confirmed the growing speculation that they hadn’t actually sung any of their songs. They gave back their Grammy, appeared in a gum commercial, and attempted to win back a furious public with their substandard real vocals. It would be a stretch to call their ensuing failure spectacular, since no one was watching anymore at that point.
An even more egregious example of this kind of pop-music bait-and-switch came via the Italian dance act Black Box, which released an album, Dreamland, in 1990 that was almost entirely sung by a woman named Martha Wash and with no credit to her. Instead, a model named Katrin Quinol lip-synced Wash’s vocals in videos for the group’s global hits “Everybody, Everybody,” “Strike It Up,” and “I Don’t Know Anybody Else,” and appeared on the covers of Black Box’s records. What’s galling about this particular case is Wash was already well known among dance-music fans—she was one half of the Weather Girls, whose 1982 single “It’s Raining Men” was a hit that time made an anthem, and before that she was known for her work with legendary disco diva Sylvester. Martha Wash’s soprano is as singular as it is titanic and it’s amazing that anyone ever tried to pretend that it belonged to someone else after it had already fallen on the listening public’s ears.
But then it happened again—C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” featured Wash’s vocals on the hook but instead of featuring or giving explicit credit to Wash, the song’s video featured Zelma Davis mouthing Wash’s words. Unlike Quinol, Davis at least sang elsewhere in her group’s catalog (like on C+C’s second single, “Here We Go (Let’s Rock &Roll)”). But like Quinol, Davis was thin and conventionally attractive—it seemed clear that Wash’s appearance, age, and size played a major role in freezing her out of visualizing what she had sung.
A similar situation occurred within German Eurodance act Technotronic—a model named Felly stood in for the rapper-singer who recorded the global hit “Pump Up the Jam,” Ya Kid K, though this was soon corrected and both appeared in Technotronic’s follow-up “Get Up! (Before the Night Is Over).”
The public outrage over lip-syncing during this time is perhaps best summed up in 1990 CBS News package in which listener after listener decries the practice:
This outrage is most reasonable in a Milli Vanilli/Black Box scenario because of the lies being sold to music consumers. These are not just the lies inherent in the group’s visual presentation; they are explicit in its members’ protestations. “Everybody ask me if I sing on this record,” Rob Pilatus reportedly told Rolling Stone months before revealing he was a fraud. “Even my mother ask me. I am very proud person, and this is embarrassing. Fabrice [Morvan] and I—I think we are big talents. We can sing as good as any other pop star in the Top 10. But I have to go through this again and again, till I get cancer in my stomach and die.” (On April 2, 1998, Pilatus was found dead from a suspected overdose at age 32.) According to Newsday, in December 1989, Milli Vanilli manager Todd Headlee confirmed the duo lip-synced for part of their tour, “but claimed that Morvan and Pilatus were singing live by the tour’s end.”
In a Sept. 21, 1990, article in Newsday about the lawsuit Wash filed against Black Box, her French stand-in Quinol denied the lip-sync allegations, explaining (through an interpreter, as she didn’t speak English) that she learned Black Box’s songs phonetically. A rep for RCA, which released Dreamland in the U.S., said, “the group cobbled together Quinol’s vocal lines from the best moments of many different takes, sometimes building songs a syllable or two at a time.” The piece went on: “Quinol said that the only reason people question whether she sang on the record was that she didn’t sing on ‘Ride on Time,’” which was the group’s first international hit, based on a series of vocal samples from Loleatta Holloway’s 1980 disco classic “Love Sensation” that were in fact cobbled together. “She blames the ‘rumor’ on Holloway’s jealousy,” reported Newsday. In a follow-up report that the AP ran December 3, 1990, Marilyn Lipsius, a spokeswoman for BMG Records (which owned RCA at the time), claimed, “We have been told Katrin is part of the group, but in no way was she the only female voice. Martha definitely sang on it, and nobody ever denied that.”
Quinol’s voice did not appear for one second on Dreamland. If it did in those pre-AutoTune days, it would have sounded like this:
Instead, here’s what Wash’s vocal, butchered by Quinol above, actually sounds like on the record:
Though instances like these can corroborate citizen fears that they’re being duped by powerful corporations, they can also be hilarious in their absurdity as multiple implicated parties step all over each other in their attempt at damage control. Take for example an interview with the New Kids on the Block’s Donnie Wahlberg that ran in the September 9, 1990, issue of the Los Angeles Times. Like Madonna and Janet Jackson, the New Kids were frequently accused of lip-syncing during their shows, which Wahlberg took upon himself to clear up (it was one of several examples of various New Kids refuting those claims in the press):
For instance, there’s the lip-syncing rumors. Reviewers have come to our shows and said New Kids are lip-syncing — when I’m singing notes out of tune and my voice is cracking! You can hear it clear as day and they’ve still got the nerve to say I’m lip-syncing!
Whatever humility Wahlberg attempted to display was further induced by the caveat immediately following this quote:
(New Kids manager Dick Scott told The Times that during some vigorous dance numbers in concert, the group does lip-sync to vocal tapes.)
Reading about this stuff you often get the sense that no one had any idea what they were doing. In any event, a year and a half later, the New Kids were still besieged by lip-syncing allegations—on January 29, 1992, the New York Post ran quotes from New Kids’ former musical director Greg McPherson claiming that the group didn’t sing live and contributed less than half of the vocal performances on their albums. To refute this, the group interrupted their Australian tour to fly halfway across the world and perform live on The Arsenio Hall Show. During their appearance, they also discussed issues related to lip-syncing.
“Our mics have always been on,” said Donnie Wahlberg.
“It’s an MTV age where people wanna see people dance and stuff, and you can’t always sing great when you got these big dance routines and stuff,” explained Jordan Knight when talking about the use of backing tracks.
Regardless, the audience of New Kids enthusiasts didn’t seem bothered either way—certainly, the allegations that had been following them for years at that point did nothing to slow their ticket sales. Other acts like Madonna, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, Britney Spears, and Justin Bieber, who have been repeatedly accused of lip-syncing and, in some cases, were caught doing so, have also thrived commercially regardless of backing tracks. Hell, even Ashlee Simpson, who had one of the most famous lip-syncing meltdowns in television history on the October 23, 2004, episode of Saturday Night Live, went on to sell obscene amounts of records after, at least for a time.
Simpson’s single “La La” went gold and her sophomore album I Am Me debuted at No. 1 almost a year after her SNL debacle and ended up certified platinum. All of this despite a torrent of dubious excuses she gave regarding SNL in an interview with Entertainment Tonight (she lost her voice, she had acid reflux, her father suggested she lip-sync, her drummer pushed the wrong button that played the vocals from the song she had already performed that night, “Pieces of Me,” as she attempted to perform “Autobiography”), as well as her already disproven assurance that she was “very anti” lip-syncing.
Lady Gaga, too, has been outspoken in her scorn of the practice. She claimed, “I have never lip-synched and never will. Even on my worst day, I never will,” and, “I don’t think it’s cool to lip-sync.” There is nonetheless plenty of user-compiled evidence to the contrary on YouTube including footage of the star falling while performing “Poker Face” without any vocal interruption in 2011. There are also examples of Gaga performing hits like “Judas” and “Applause” on TV, in which the hooks sound vocally identical to Gaga’s recordings:
Maybe she’s singing along, but during the hook, the backing track is turned up high enough that any live element is of little consequence to the overall sound. You can call that whatever you want—there is a whole spectrum of outside vocal assistance pop stars call upon in live settings—but to engage in a practice where over 75 percent of what the audience hears is prerecorded and then claim repeatedly that you don’t lip-sync is disingenuous semantic maneuvering.
The lengths some pop stars go to in order to conceal their lip-syncing can be surprisingly sophisticated—it may not be considered art (though hundreds of drag queens who’ve competed on RuPaul’s Drag Race could certainly convince you otherwise), but lip-syncing is undoubtedly a craft in expert hands/mouths. When I saw Mariah Carey in 2014 the first night of the first series of what have become annual Christmas shows at New York’s Beacon Theater, I witnessed the most sporadic lip-syncing I’d ever encountered—a note here, a section there, nothing more than absolutely necessary to Mariah-ize the song when her actual instrument possibly couldn’t. It was the aural equivalent of the tasteful facial plastic surgery that fancy women like Judge Judy get, and the considerable mental choreography it required was impressive. Not as impressive as Carey’s now bygone ability to open her lungs and blow out every note perfectly, but its own reduced-expectation sort of impressive.