Lip-Syncing Reconsidered

Beyoncé faked her performance of the United States national anthem at President Obama’s inauguration ceremony.  Since this revelation, crestfallen fans around the world have delivered declarations of disappointment and despair on the Internet.  Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has even called for Obama to resign over the lip-syncing controversy.

The outrage has revealed how supremely ignorant the public is regarding the ubiquity of lip-syncing.  Lip-syncing is an unfortunate but permanent fact of the modern world.  The majority of high-profile vocal performances by popular musicians are pre-recorded and subsequently lip-synched live.  If you pay big money to see Rihanna, Katy Perry, or Justin Bieber at giant arena gigs, you’d better be a fan of light shows and costumes, because the vocal performances will be the same as those on your iPod.

Is this practice acceptable?  That depends.  There are often practical reasons beyond laziness or lack of talent to justify lip-syncing.  Michael Jackson never would have been able to pull off his immortal dance routines onstage while simultaneously preoccupied with singing.  Strong winds might have caused Beyoncé’s vocals to sound muddled, and the microphone may have picked up an undesirable whooshing noise.  Poor Ashlee Simpson claimed to have been suffering from a bout of acid reflux disease during her notorious Saturday Night Live flub; this is clearly a reasonable excuse.  But often, no such practical reason exists, besides that it is easy to sound good when you aren’t really singing.

Frankly, we have brought this upon ourselves by coming to expect music to sound perfect.  Do today’s pop stars possess much cleaner and better-tuned voices than the musicians of yesteryear?  A bluesy, mournful sigh emanates from Billie Holiday’s grave at this suggestion.  Although there is one exception: Justin Bieber was grown in a laboratory underneath Disney World, and his vocal chords, constructed from carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer, are flawless.

The truth is that even in today’s recorded pop music, the singers themselves contribute minimally to the finished product.  Computer programs like Pro Tools and Auto-Tune allow producers to touch up, process, and homogenize vocals to the degree that computers do about 80% of the singing.

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If pop singers fake their live performances and allow producers and their computers do the majority of the studio work for them, what are they?  They are mere spokespeople for the music to which they attach their names and their pretty faces.  Brad Pitt may be the new face of Chanel No. 5 perfume, but nobody mistakenly attributes the creation of that iconic scent to this laughably miscast celebrity representative.

There is no need to abandon pop music over this lamentable reality.  However, we need a widespread shift of recognition.  We need to start delivering credit where credit is due.  Somebody is still making the music, even if it’s not Taylor Swift and Harry Styles.  It’s time for songwriters and producers to emerge from the shadows.

With the increasing disappearance of live instrumentation in pop music, producers can now usually claim all of the credit for creating the backing track and the general sound and aesthetic of pop music, and through the use of aforementioned computer programs, they are responsible for the tweaking of the vocal tracks that so strongly determines how they end up sounding.  Often the songwriter and producer are the same person, and certain songwriting-production teams share these responsibilities.  Some of these individuals have had enormous influences on contemporary music, yet they receive a grossly disproportionate lack of recognition.

A Swede named Max Martin has been perhaps the most important figure in pop music of the last fifteen years.  He has written and/or produced a mind-blowing number of megahits, including ten number one chart-toppers. His work ranges from some of the most recognisable hits of the Backstreet Boys, N’Sync and Britney Spears to ‘It’s My Life’ by Bon Jovi and more recently, Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ and others and Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’

Martin’s full discography also includes songs by Kelly Clarkson, Taio Cruz, Usher, P!nk, Ace of Base, Cyndi Lauper, Simple Plan, A-ha, Carrie Underwood, Ke$ha, Céline Dion, T.I., Robyn, Avril Lavigne, Pitbull, Nicki Minaj, Maroon 5, Justin Bieber, Christina Aguilera, Carly Rae Jepsen, and James Blunt, among many others.  The inconsequentiality of the singers who end up with the credit for these songs is illustrated by an anecdote about one of Martin’s most successful hits: “…Baby One More Time” was first offered to the Backstreet Boys and subsequently TLC, who turned it down before it was passed on to Britney.

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Some of Martin’s frequent collaborators include Lukasz Gottwald (also known as Dr. Luke) and 24-year-old Benny Blanco.  In their own right, either or both of these men are responsible for Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” and “We R Who We R,” Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger,” Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.,” and the list goes on and on.  Nearly all of Rihanna’s hits have been created by a Norwegian writing-production duo known as Stargate.  These unsung heroes are the real pop stars of the modern world.  Though their hair and makeup may not be as flawless as that of the young men and women who strut around onstage moving their lips while their songs play in the background, it is their talent and creativity that have shaped the music we listen to today.

Distraught fans and Senator Rand Paul, go ahead and rip the Beyoncé posters off your walls.  But if you really care about music, you should at least replace them with Max Martin posters.