NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Lip-Synching From Hell

Live or Not, It's What's Behind the Music That Counts

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Got several e-mails this week asking me who was lip-synching on the CMA Awards. That kind of surprised me. Perfection is not the aim of country music — obviously. There’s one artist I know who was lip-synching on the CMA show, and it’s someone who generally does lip-synch because a lot of dancing and movement is usually involved in that person’s act. Have you ever seen a country artist try to really dance while trying to really sing? It’s not a pretty sight. Nor a desirable sound.

There is a time and place for lip-synching. ABBA lip-synched on stage but were brilliant songwriters and recording artists. But remember Milli Vanilli? The hapless duo couldn’t do anything but lip-synch (to someone else’s vocals) and were drummed out of show business when their dirty little secret was revealed. Lip-synching in movies is commonplace: Marni Nixon, for example, was the singing voice for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and for Deborah Kerr in The King and I — among others.

Lip-synching is not the real issue here. Lip-synching has been common in live performances, from the old days of American Bandstand to the Partridge Family to Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl in 1991. I understand that poor Britney Spears can’t say hello to an audience without lip-synching. No, the issue here is what part of an artist’s work is genuine — and what part is artifice. The Monkees greatly resented being manufactured dummies, and some of them tried to become real, genuine performers who could write and sing and play instruments. They knew they weren’t real.

But the whole lip-synching thing is really making the rounds of chat rooms and message boards, and not surprisingly, younger fans and fans of hip-hop and rap and candy pop music don’t see what the fuss is all about. Die-hard rockers, staunch country traditionalists and dyed-in-the-wool folkies demand authenticity in their musical idols. Are we moving toward two Americas — one live (and imperfect) and one pre-recorded (and seemingly perfect)?

In a recent New York Times manifesto of music criticism, headlined “The Rap Against Rockism,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote that, in essence, rock criticism and, by projection, pop criticism and the entire sensibility of both worlds are governed by an aging clique of old fart critics who refuse to let go of the old days. And who actually judge artists and performers by the quality of their work — and whether their work is original. And whether it’s actually even their work.

The crux of his sermon was that Ashlee Simpson’s getting caught lip-synching on Saturday Night Live is a problem only for misguided, judgmental critics and audiences. And that what Simpson was doing was just as much art as anything Bruce Springsteen achieves. Although, Springsteen actually writes songs, plays them on guitar and sings them on stage. He doesn’t need backing tracks (which are crutches for many weaker-voiced singers, to sweeten their actual Pro Tooled live voices) and neither does Willie Nelson or any number of whom I — as an elitist by Sanneh’s standards — consider true musical artists.

Sanneh had the makings of a sound argument for changing critical standards to reflect changing times. Unfortunately, he did not fully develop it. The most telling thing about his 2,000-word article is that the word “musician” does not appear in it at all. That’s because he’s ultimately arguing for a dumbed-down musical world order in which people who cannot sing, write songs or play musical instruments (or even convincingly lip-synch) should be lauded as credible artists.

But if you have a mannequin lip-synching — to pre-recorded, perfect Pro Tooled vocals –a manufactured song, crafted according to focus groups’ preferences, over a perfect backing track strung together in the studio from many sources, then what do you have? An artificial construct, that’s what you have. Where’s the artistry? Where’s the artist? Where is the music? Is that going to last 50 years, much less 15 minutes? Is that what we want America’s musical legacy to be?

P.S.: I like and appreciate much of the work Sanneh is doing, but he could benefit from a primer on country music history: He wrote in the Times on Oct. 24 that Tammy Wynette would be performing in the CMT Outlaws music special. Dead six years now is our Tammy. God rest her non-lip-synching soul.