Sounds of Silence

While flipping through channels I chanced upon what appeared to be Michael Jackson. It was hard to tell. The black fedora and falling ringlets obscured the too-white face that contrasted with the black suit, black tie and red shirt that seemed to have been fabricated with a Saran Wrap-like polymer. A group of black-clad dancers behind him mimed his moves. He slipped, slid, skipped, jerked, popped, crossed himself and grabbed his crotch like a possessed clergyman in need of hard time. The music was “Dangerous.” A woman dressed in a black neoprene suit slithered out; there were spear-like protrusions emerging from the suit looking no more menacing than a Nerf product. Her role, implied nasty sexuality notwithstanding, was oddly minor: “Go to stage right and stay there, out of the way of the star.” When all was done, Michael, for it was the erstwhile King of Pop, and Dick Clark gave each other tentative hugs. One, after all, is visibly made of porcelain, and the other is an Elgin Marble relic.

I had chanced upon “American Bandstand’s 50th…a Celebration.” Other performers included Dennis Quaid, who did a version of “Great Balls of Fire,” presumably because he’d starred in the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic of that name. Quaid appeared as though he’d gobbled down every stimulant known to pharmacologists as he ran and rolled pop-eyed around the stage. He and Clark did not embrace. Clark may have had to pull out a cattle prod to protect himself. There were Alanis and KISS (I wondered whether (a) Gene Simmons’ tongue would become dehydrated, given the inordinate amount of time that it spends on his chin and (b) any of the band members had ever fallen from the skyscraping height of their platform shoes.) There were film clips galore, including everyone from Neil Sedaka to Bobby Vinton to the Doors to Jefferson Airplane to Creed to J. Lo.

In all cases, the performers seemed to be lip syncing.

Consider going to a “live” performance by a band you admire. Assume that you know the band entirely from hearing recordings of its music. Now you are going to be in the presence of the group. What do you expect? Often, it’s to hear sounds that are almost identical to those that you have become familiar with from the recording. What you implicitly expect becomes your internal standard. If during the show there is deviation from that norm it could be good (e.g., an extended guitar solo) or bad (e.g., the singer can’t hit that critical note). Still, you are there, sharing the air with that group. There is something about the sheer physicality of the experience.

But what if the singer is lip syncing and the musicians are only pretending to be playing their instruments? They are still there, putting on a performance. And a performance is, after all, nothing more than an act. Do we expect reality in acting, or is that fundamentally an impossibility (i.e., to act is to pretend)? While I know that GloNo readers avoid performances like those of Britney and ‘N Sync like they would Ebola-infected parts of the planet, I submit that performers like them are mainly about physical presence and action, and that their music is actually secondary in their shows: that’s obvious by their costumes and choreography. But the same may be true of even a—dare I say?—Wilco, when there is a desire to hear what Tweedy will actually say between songs. It isn’t all about the singing, it is the being, the sharing of something in that particular space and moment that’s not otherwise available.

So what’s wrong with lip syncing? Audio technology has gotten so sophisticated that there is subtle manipulation of what is heard by the audience: those sounds coming from the stage are not necessarily directly created by vocal chords. Is it “live” if it has been put through not merely a microphone but a microprocessor?

Musicians aren’t who we think they are. They aren’t those people we each create in our minds. In a show on the Bravo channel that I’d caught earlier in the week, “Musicians,” Elvis Costello (which is, of course, a stage name—a made-up, pretend name) was asked whether there was an actual Allison (“Some times I think that I should stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say…”). And he replied that there wasn’t, that “she” was actually a composite of women he’d known, a composite, not a someone that I imagined based on the experiences in my life (we all “know” an “Allison,” right?). “She” is simply a character on the list of Dramatis Persona. No Allison.

What do we expect from musicians? When we see them “live,” do they provide any greater promise than the fact that they are there?

7 thoughts on “Sounds of Silence”

  1. If anyone desires to know what Jeff Tweedy will say between songs here ya go:And that’s basically it. All right, with the comedy portion of the act behind us, here’s my take. I think there are a lot of different reasons people go to shows and/or concerts. Some people just idol-worshippers, some hope that a bit of talent will rub off on them. Some just want to get high with a bunch of stangers on the lawn of their local corporate amphitheater-type locale. Personally, I like hearing new/unrealeased stuff and getting the chance if I’m lucky to maybe chat with a performer when they’re wandering around during the opening act. Naturally, this is only a club/small venue type scenario. That’s why I won’t go to big concerts unless it’s the only way I can possibly see a band I really like.As for lip-synching, I think the performer owes it to his or her fans to at least make the effort, particularly if they’re gouging them for 50 dollar seats. Either sing, or come clean about faking it. They aren’t fooling anyone who doesn’t want to be fooled, so why insult us pretending to being singing perfectly clearly while running at full speed across a massive stage?

  2. The lip-synching bit is unacceptable. Regardless of how processed people make their voices, not actually playing or singing anything is going too far. But, as you say, people that go to N’Stync are paying for a show not a concert. I pay for a concert. Maybe that’s why everyone feels so lucky when they catch the rare solo acoustic sets of their favorite artists? They know that they’re getting the real thing.Now, as far as the realization of the fiction involved in people’s songwriting, I’d rather not know. Even if songs are entirely factual, I’d personally like to develop my own mental image of where the writer received their inspiration.

  3. I’m in you guys’ camp on this one. People go to concerts for different reasons. The big shows are more about the show than the music. I would probably go so far as to say that most artists who lip-synch have fans who would barely care or even know the difference. The fans don’t want something “real”! By Neil Young’s widely accepted Sugar Mountain standard, they haven’t begun to find out that “it’s real”. They just want the pretty person to sing the pretty music that they heard on the radio. Then on the other end of the continuum you have these hipster scene shows, full of very self-aware participants who all would prefer to center the show around the music. The musicians eschew all signs of self-aggrandizement in the performance, creating the paradoxical effect of the “anti-star”.When these worlds collide, it is very entertaining. For example, I once saw an old American Bandstand in which Talking Heads appeared. Now first consider that all bands on AB lip-sync. I mean, to the point where you have a band like ABC on there, and at the end of “Be Near Me” or whatever, the fade out happens while the band is on stage, and they dont even bother to try to cover it up. So you get Talking Heads on there, and the song they are supposed to do is Take Me To the River. The song is announced, and the camera pans from Dick Clark’s rapacious smile to the band, to audience applause. The tape starts, the band starts mock rocking, and David Byrne begins to move his mouth to it, but quickly refuses to play ball. By the close of the song he has skipped entire VERSES of the vocal. But isn’t that what AB deserves for inviting a artists’ band into an artistically hostile environment?

  4. But what separates Britney Spears from any Vegas show girl? Just that she has a better agent? The clips I’ve heard of her last album are so manipulated that she’s really not even “performing” on CD nevermind live. I’d be willing to bet a Vegas girl works harder and has more real talent than Britney or most of the other pop divas out there.

  5. It’s being at the right place at the right time. Not that’d I’d want to be, but I see no reason why I couldn’t be in one of the great boybands. None of them are very strikingly handsome, they’re all just dudes who can carry a tune, dance fairly well and can wake up every morning and feel good knowing that they’ve sold their souls to a 13 year old devilgirl for fame and fortune.Does anyone know if N’Sync and britney are on the same level? If they are, I’d almost hypothesize that her much publicized relationship was just another cog in the marketing machine that sells shit to unknowing teens.

  6. “The lip-synching bit is unacceptable. Regardless of how processed people make their voices, not actually playing or singing anything is going too far.”Why? Presumably at some point (e.g., in the studio) the singer (if, indeed, it isn’t a Milli Vanilli situation) did the singing, so what difference does it make whether that is actually done still another time–and perhaps not done as well?Or is there value in the flaw, the note that gets caught in the throat?

  7. Personally, I pay my money to hear a live show. A show with imperfections, banter, and different vocal inflection that gives a subtle, yet different meaning to a certain line. I suppose that if the artist could pull it off without me knowing (maybe they already have), I wouldn’t mind.I’m certainly dissatisfied, though, when I walk out of a show and feel like I’ve listened to a greatest hits compilation.

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