Milli Vanilli Travesty: No One's Laughing Now

Milli Vanilli was treated as a joke in the music business almost from the moment the duo emerged last year. Comedians had a field day making fun of Milli Vanilli, who came to epitomize the shallowness of disco music and of glitzy MTV sex objects. They became a staple of Arsenio Hall's monologue, a synonym for ``phony'' and ``wimp.'' Cast members of the TV show ``Living Color'' donned wigs and bicycle shorts and mocked the duo's dance steps, especially its leaping chest crash. ``Saturday Night Live'' did a skit that now seems prescient; it showed Milli Vanilli being unmasked as frauds.

Rumors that Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan couldn't sing began to circulate soon after the duo joined the ``Club MTV Tour'' in the summer of '89. It was obvious they were lip-synching on stage, especially after a disastrous show in Bristol, Conn., in which the tape machine malfunctioned and they started to sound like a broken record.

Faced with the undeniable, Milli Vanilli's managers admitted the duo lip-synched in concert - as do many other pop stars - but said nothing about the duo's record album being a fraud. A promotion executive at a Los Angeles record company (not Arista, Milli Vanilli's label) told me last year that the two were backup singers on ``Girl You Know It's True'' and had been moved up front because of their looks. As everyone now knows, it was even worse than that - they weren't on the album at all.

This week's revelations about the album, which has sold 7 million copies, were greeted with amusement by many, especially comedians. It's been a big topic for Arsenio Hall and for Jay Leno on ``The Tonight Show.'' Those who always considered Milli Vanilli laughable are enjoying big yucks over the current controversy.

But it wasn't funny when Milli Vanilli had to return their Grammy for best new artist. It not only besmirched the duo, their record company and managers, but it also deprived a legitimate candidate of the honor. (The National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, which presents the Grammys, will meet next week to decide what to do about the award.) And the scandal raises serious questions about the nature of the contemporary music business.

Lip-synching has been around for a long time. I can remember when the daily version of ``American Bandstand'' came on the air here on Channel 4 in 1957 and how disappointed I was that its music guests lip-synched their songs. But Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen continued to feature live performances on their shows. And lip-synching was unheard of in concerts.

Today, every video is lip-synched, and technology has made it common for tapes - or, actually, microchips in synthesizers - to augment live performances. Almost every performing group now uses some form of electronic sweetening in its shows. For instance, you almost never see a string section and rarely see a horn section anymore - those sounds are produced by synthesizers.

But, until recently, vocals were usually ``real.'' The first famous group that didn't do its own vocals in concert was the Village People in the mid-1980s. While group members disco-danced and pretended to sing on stage, live singers backstage did the vocals.

With improved technology, synthesized vocals have become common at concerts. Madonna cites strenuous dancing as the reason she uses backup tapes on her concert tours. Ditto Janet Jackson. And the sweet harmonies by New Kids on the Block are not live, but Memorex.

Fake vocals have become so common that lawmakers have gotten into the act. In three states - California, New York and New Jersey - legislation has been introduced requiring promoters to inform concert-goers when parts of a performance are prerecorded. The bills are strongly supported by the American Federation of Musicians, which opposes any form of non-live music on stage, because it puts musicians out of work.

But up to now, no one thought to make false claims on recordings unlawful. The Milli Vanilli album clearly states ``vocals by Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan.'' In a climate where record companies are already under siege for ``obscenity'' in pop music lyrics, expect legislation regarding false claims by record companies.

But there's a larger question of morality. Has the music business become so slick and manipulative that it no longer values honesty and creativity? Have the ideals of the 1960s, when pop music was seen as a moral and political force, been completely forgotten?

Perhaps the events of this week will stir the music industry to re-evaluate its philosophy and practices. Certainly it will be under more scrutiny. But fear of legislation or lawsuits shouldn't be the motivating factor - it should be the nature of the music itself.

Music is supposed to express feelings of the heart and spirit, not the pocketbook. If music loses its soul, the industry will go down with it.