Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Lip-sync Ethics

China’s cynical use of an ultra-telegenic 9-year old moppet to mouth the vocal performance of a less adorable little girl in the Olympics Opening Ceremonies has once again raised the issue of the ethics of lip-syncing. It is definitely an ethical moving target.  

The first time I realized that I was watching a live performance where the performers were lip-syncing to pre-recorded vocals—I think it was during a typically up-beat, saccharine musical revue at Busch Gardens—I was appalled. It seemed blatantly deceptive, not to mention an affront to all legitimate live performers who risk lyric mistakes and cracking voices to give an authentic performance. Talking to other audience members, I concluded that about half didn’t notice, and the rest didn’t care. Where was the harm? The harm is simple to identify: inferior performers get to appear more talented and accomplished than their more able competition by having their performance enhanced aided by technological means. Performers who have trained to be able to sing while dancing get no recognition for their dedication, because other performers are cheating to accomplish the same end result. Dancers who can’t sing a lick appear to be all-around entertainment stars. But, I was reminded by a veteran theme park actress, this wasn’t Broadway. This was Busch Gardens, and this cheesy, glitzy revue was being performed eight times a day. The performers couldn’t give completely live performances at full energy without being hoarse by the last show.   

OK. I learned to accept theme-park revue lip-synching (I also learned to never watch a theme park revue), especially since, over time, very few audiences were fooled. Lip-syncing in that setting became well-known and accepted; it was deceptive the way plays are deceptive to people who think actors make up their lines as they go along. It is, simply, a different form of entertainment than a life performance…homogenized, less spontaneous, unavoidably ersatz, but no longer unethical. The use of pre-recorded vocals eventually seeped into Broadway shows, like A Chorus Line, and pop concerts, usually when the choreography was so demanding that no one could be expected to do the steps and belt out a tune. The use of excessive electric amplification on stage made this possible and thus inevitable. But it was still Madonna’s and Britney’s voices, and they were still live up there, even if their voices sometimes weren’t. And, as with Busch Gardens, the audience dutifully accepted it. Live entertainment is now competing with recordings, in which anyone could be engineered into sounding like a singer, as well as movies and pre-recorded TV, where every mistake is edited out. Some Broadway audiences can no longer appreciate what was special about live performances: the fact that a unique act of artistic creation is happening right in front of you. They are satisfied with digitally-created perfection, and that is what they are getting. 

OK. I lost interest in buying tickets to big Broadway musicals. The ethical line on lip-syncing was obviously moving, though not in a direction I liked. Nobody felt cheated when they learned that Marni Nixon, a plain, journeyman actress with a freak voice, sang for Natalie Wood, Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn when they starred in film musicals. But pop stars who couldn’t really sing, like the infamous Milli Vanilli, fell on the other side of the line. And when a technical glitch exposed Ashley Simpson as prepared to perform “Ashley Simpson pre-recorded” on “Saturday Night Live,” the critics yelled foul. This was getting complicated.  

When Whitney Houston delivered an extraordinarily rousing rendition of the National Anthem at the Superbowl in 1991 just as the Gulf War had erupted, it was one of those rare live performances that immediately entered cultural history. Later, the story emerged that Houston wasn’t singing live at all, but lip-synching to her own recording. People everywhere were angry: they felt manipulated, fooled and cheated. Houston’s moment was diminished, even though the charges of lip-syncing have never been confirmed. A similar controversy arose surrounding the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti’s final performance, at the opening of 2006 Olympic Winter Olympics in Turin. Frail and in pain (he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few months later), Pavarotti knew that he would be unable to perform in the cold and surreptitiously taped his vocals in advance. "The orchestra pretended to play for the public there, I pretended to conduct and Luciano pretended to sing," his long-time conductor, Leone Magiera wrote in his book, "Pavarotti Visto Da Vicino" ("Pavarotti Seen From Close Up"), which was published this March. "It came off beautifully, no one was aware of the technical tricks." Deception? Or a dying genius, trying to give his audience a last great thrill as his life ebbed away?

I have some sympathy for Pavorotti: certainly no audience would get much enjoyment out of a performance that was announced with, “The great tenor Luciano Pavorotti will now lip-sync to his recording of ‘Nessun Dorma’.” But the Houston mystery, the Pavarotti charade, and the Chinese opening ceremonies all have the same effect, individually and collectively: they destroy our ability to enjoy great live performances the way we once could, thrilling to the certain knowledge that we are witnessing something extraordinary from a great talent. They turn what is one of the oldest and most authentic forms of human entertainment, a performer getting up in front of people and singing, into a guessing game and a magic act. Did he really do that? Is this real? And this takes a little bit of the joy of life away from us.That makes lip-syncing in public performances wrong. Not only is the audience being lied to; it is being made cynical.

A couple days after the Chinese opening ceremonies, my mother said, “Did you see that little girl in the Opening ceremonies? Wasn’t she amazing?” I replied, “She wasn’t the one singing. She was lip-syncing to another little girl’s voice, because the Chinese government didn’t think the real singer was pretty enough.” Her disappointment was palpable. She was also angry about being fooled. But being angry at the Chinese government isn’t a great tragedy. Losing the ability to be thrilled by a little girl’s song is.

I still blame the theme park revues.  

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