A tradition of the modern music industry, lip syncing has been a mainstay for many "live" performances for years, however the format is such that when it fails, the show truly crashes and burns. Here we look at the 1989 debacle of Milli Vanilli, as well as five other infamous lip syncing disasters.
Lip-syncing has been a time-honored… well not honored… tradition in the music industry for decades. If you don’t believe me, watch any Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or episode of American Bandstand, or most Super Bowl halftime performances. It’s always sort of been accepted in mass-entertainment as a “safety measure” to protect against musicians going rogue live on the air or to keep talented singers from messing up in front of millions. But what happens when the pre-recorded track messes up?!
And what happens when the world figures out that their favorite singers never actually had any singing talent to begin with?
Enter the perfect storm of Milli Vanilli.
Depending on how old you are, you either lived through this debacle, or know about it from some kind of men-with-braids meme. Welp, in the late 1980s, Milli Vanilli had it all: three number one hits (five in the Top 10), seven million copies of their debut album sold, and to cap it all off, a Grammy Award for “Best New Artist.” Plus, they had the best hair, the best bums, and the best darn shoulder pads the music business had ever seen.
But, all that came crumbling down 29 years ago, on July 21, 1989, and they had only themselves, not “the rain,” to blame. While on the Club MTV Tour in Bristol, Connecticut, the German duo of Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan were singing their mega-hit, “Girl You Know It’s True,” when their live backing track began to skip.
Clearly lip-syncing, the pair rushed off stage as the chorus repeated over and over. Eventually, it was exposed that the pair had never even sung on their six-time platinum album to begin with — it was all the brainchild of German producer Frank Farian who created the farce. The ruse was over. Their clout disappeared in a flash. They were exposed in November of 1990 as frauds; their Grammy was taken away; and unfortunately for the talented performing duo, their careers were never able to bounce back.
Their symphony ultimately ended on the saddest of notes, when on April 2, 1998, Pilatus was found dead due to an accidental drug overdose. The Milli Vanilli tale is one of betrayal and mistrust, as well as confusion and embarrassment; that said, the music that was produced is still really good. Play any of their songs at a party, and it still can get you dancing, whether it’s their voices or not.
And that’s where this subject gets a bit tricky. Did they sing? Okay, not really, but they had amazing dance moves, they worked their crowds like pros, people had a great time engaging with their music and performances on a number of levels… could they have transitioned somehow to preserve a lasting cultural impact after this disaster if the world would’ve let them? Totally… If only audiences were as forgiving then as they are now.
In the years since Milli Vanilli’s fall from grace, backing track technology has only continued to become more advanced and commonplace, and so many more artists have suffered through historic “performances” that flopped on a grand scale. Here are five of our favorites.
Mariah Carey rings in the New Year (2016/17)
The ball wasn’t the only thing that dropped as we welcomed in the new year on Dec. 31, 2016. After singing the predictable “Auld Lang Syne,” during her medley of hits, pop star Mariah Carey and her dancing ensemble whiffed the timing and the “sync” part of the lip-sync.
This classic train wreck included something for everyone: singing to backing vocals, not singing to backing vocals, dancing as backing vocals played, and confused backup dancers dancing to prerecorded music as their star stood there giving audiences a play-by-play of what she was currently messing up. She blamed their lack of a soundcheck, called out to the seemingly non-existent audio engineers that her monitors didn’t work, called herself a “good sport,” but ultimately walked off when “We Belong Together,” ironically fell completely apart.
Not Bey? (2013)
Look, Beyoncé can do no wrong (not that unfortunate things don’t happen to her). She could literally sing a medley of theme songs from ’80s sitcoms and it’d be an instant hit. But, she took some heat for lip-syncing at President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013. Because she didn’t have proper time to rehearse with the orchestra or soundcheck, she chose to sing to a pre-recorded track. Unlike other lip-sync disasters, Beyonce’s was smooth and sounded great — in other words, she didn’t so much get caught, but she was nonetheless later exposed. As expected, Queen B came out of this one completely unscathed.
Singing over spilled milk (2012)
I’ve got Bieber fever and the only prescription is more lip-syncing. On the first night of his world tour, Justin Bieber gave his fans something to remember: a night of pre-recorded tracks and milk vomit (so he claims). Arizona Beliebers were treated to a performance that included him vomiting mid-song as his vocals continued to play in the background. The Canadian singer would later blame his upchucking on drinking “too much milk.” Fans didn’t cry over it.
“Gimme Less” (2007)
Ten years prior to Carey’s mishap, another pop star showed up to a different kind of party but left the same residue. Yes, Britney Spears had a tough run in the mid-2000s: a shaved head, a brief rehab stint, and an umbrella all come to mind, but her horrendous performance at the 2007 Video Music Awards might take the cake. Touted as her comeback, Spears took the stage in this performance and left the crowd slack-jawed at what they’d just watched. The normally stellar dancer seemed out of step and listless, and her uncomfortable performance included not just lip-syncing her song “Gimme More,” but even a laugh that’s featured in the song, and the intro: “It’s Britney, bitch.” It’s one thing to lip-sync vocals, but lip sync a laugh? Skills.
Pieces of Ashlee Simpson (2007)
Live from New York… it’s the biggest flub in Saturday Night Live history? Probably not, but it’s up there with the Norm MacDonald F-bomb at least. Slowly coming out from under her big sister Jessica’s shadow, Ashlee Simpsonscored a gig as the show’s musical guest in 2003. Her first performance of the night, her hit “Pieces of Me,” went off without a hitch, but when she returned to the stage a second time, it unraveled in front of millions of live viewers. The band played the next tune, but the vocals to “Piece of Me” came back on instead.
Like a deer in headlights, Simpson held her microphone, danced an awkward jig, and bolted from the stage. When the show closed, she blamed the mishap on her band playing “the wrong song.” Not cool, Simpson. She quickly amended that and owned up the following Monday saying she lip-synced because she had vocal stress. Unfortunately, the jig-fueled showcase is what stands out in her career.
Jon Chattman has shared a Reuben sandwich with Randy “Macho Man” Savage, somehow ignited Snoop Dogg to sing Dean Martin, and questioned Meryl Streep on what she’d do during a zombie apocalypse. He has written for a variety of outlets including Huffington Post, Inked Magazine, and USA Today, and runs his own music series (“A-Sides”), which has drawn such acts as Gary Clark, Jr., Imagine Dragons, Sleigh Bells, Joe Perry, and Alice Cooper, to name just a few.