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?