Once upon a time, before Auto-Tune and before artists routinely used backing tracks in concert situations, there was a group called Milli Vanilli. Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus looked great–all clothes and hair, perfect for MTV and MuchMusic–but they harbored a secret. They didn’t actually sing any of the songs on their records or when they performed live.
At first, these allegations were just rumours, written off as the ravings of jealous haters. But as the hits piled up, more people began to question what was going on. And after the Grammy Award, a full-on All the President’s Men investigation was unleashed.
In the end, the guys in Milli Vanilli were exposed as fakes after a backing track malfunctions, showing beyond a doubt that they were just lip-syncing. After all these years, it’s still kinda hard to watch.
Milli Vanilli immediately became a punchline for the entire music industry and were forced to give back their Grammy (The actual date for that humilation was November 27, 1990). Rob never recovered and died of a drug overdose in 1998.
Fast-forward to today when lip-syncing to Auto-Tuned polished backing tracks is standard for pop stars when they perform live. Turns out that Milli Vanilli was just ahead of their time.
The Atlantic picks up the thread on the continuing debate over realness vs. fakeness in today’s music.
Milli Vanilli hasn’t been forgotten. November 27 marks a quarter century since the Grammys revoked the Best New Artist trophy from the act whose songs, it turned out, were sung not by the European models Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus but by uncredited musicians working with the producer Frank Farian. It’s one of the most important scandals in pop history, especially when viewed in the context of today’s cultural wars over realness and fakeness.
Morvan and Pilatus always maintained that they were suckered by Farian, who recruited them for their looks and presented them with a catchy demo track that they, despite his promises, were never given a chance to rerecord. As that track, “Girl You Know It’s True,” rose to the top of the charts internationally, the two became sensations who gyrated (with great finesse and charisma) for screaming masses. In one spectacularly ill-advised quote, they told a Time reporter that they were more talented than Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney. A backing-track malfunction at a show fed rumors that they were just lip syncing, but it all really began to unravel when a singer named Charles Shaw said that he was the real voice on “Girl You Know It’s True,” after which Farian owned up about what he’d created.