Read Their Lips : Are Madonna, New Kids on the Block and Milli Vanilli singing live or lip synching in concert? Some legislators say it’s time for answers


One of the most talked about moments in Madonna’s acclaimed new “Blond Ambition” tour is when the former Material Girl joins arm in arm with a man in a bright yellow Dick Tracy overcoat and dances around the stage--while a tape of one of her songs plays.

Madonna uses a recorded version of a song from her new album because Warren Beatty duets with her on the record--and the actor, who plays the comic-strip hero in the upcoming film, isn’t about to go out on the road for three months. There’s no attempt to disguise the fact that Madonna’s not actually singing live on stage.

But what about the rest of her concert?

Is she really able to run around the stage with the energy of a marathon runner without huffing and puffing at some point or missing a note?


Likewise, Janet Jackson executes some equally complicated dance steps during her highly touted “Rhythm Nation” tour. Yet no matter how physically demanding the novice performer’s dancing was at the Forum in Inglewood, Jackson turned in studio-perfect vocals on every number.

A lot of concertgoers ask themselves: Are these artists really singing? Are the bands really playing?

What seem like simple questions lead to pop’s hottest guessing game--and a maze of suspicions and claims, denials and doubts.

Madonna and Janet Jackson concerts aren’t the only acts that have left fans guessing in recent months. Questions have also been raised about such other dance-oriented acts as Milli Vanilli, New Kids on the Block and Paula Abdul.

Some industry insiders insist that tapes--at least background instrumental or vocal tapes--are employed by some acts, but they won’t publicly specify who.

“You won’t get any names out of me, but I do know for a fact that there are groups now that do use tapes to re-create the look and sound of their videos,” Louis Messina, owner of the Dallas-based Pace Concerts and producer of the 1989 Club MTV tour, said in a telephone interview. “But I don’t necessarily think that it’s wrong. If the audience leaves the concert fulfilled, that’s what counts.”


Representatives of Madonna, Jackson and Abdul deny their acts are using recorded vocal tapes (except for Madonna’s Dick Tracy number), though a member of Milli Vanilli and a spokesman for New Kids on the Block admit their groups employ tapes in some cases. The practice, they say, is simply a reflection of the need to re-create on stage the sophisticated technology of the recording studio.

“Of course we work with tapes on a certain level,” said Milli Vanilli’s Rob Pilatus in a recent interview with a Los Angeles TV station. “But we sing live, too. This means that on some songs--because of the high energy--we use the Synclavier, but other songs we sing live.”

But some legislators in California, New York and New Jersey feel it’s time for the guessing game to end.

In May, Assemblyman Neil B. Cohen, vice-chairman of the Consumer Affairs Committee in the New Jersey State Legislature, joined with Assemblyman Joseph Mecca in introducing legislation requiring performers to make it clear before concerts whether they’ll sing live or lip-sync to recorded music.

“We inferred that the current trend toward pre-recorded vocals and electronic enhancement was to the detriment of the consumer,” Cohen said.

California Assemblyman Bob Epple and New York Assemblyman Jerrold Nadler are also trying to enact disclosure bills regarding recorded instrumental tracks.


“My bill will let consumers know what to expect,” said Epple, who plans to introduce his bill in January. “It will enable them to make an informed decision as to how they want to spend their money.

Does the consumer really care whether artists perform live or use tapes? Given the pace at which concerts sell out these days, pop music purists would be hard-pressed to argue against automation. Truth in advertistng aside, audiences tend to be enraptured by the picture-perfect performances that computer technology provides. Contemporary artists are judged less on the merits of their musical prowess than on the look of their latest video. In this regard, proponents of tapes insist that automation does not inhibit the concert experience, it enhances it.

Jennifer Wells, a 15-year-old New Kids on the Block fan club member from Danville, Calif. doesn’t see a problem. “I’ve been to four New Kids concerts and each performance was great,” said Wells. “Even if they did lip-sync a portion of the show, it wouldn’t bother me at all. They’re great entertainers.”

But Musician magazine editor Bill Flanagan disagrees.

“Someone grimacing and striking heroic poses to a pre-recorded tape is kind of like fraud,” Flanagan said. “How would you feel if you went to a football game and found out every exciting pass and tremendous field run was choreographed in advance?

“People buy tickets to live events because they want to watch artists accomplish something. Tapes completely negate that. They create kind of like a supermarket appearance, where audiences end up cheering the celebrity just for showing up.”

In an interview with The Times, Todd Headlee, who is Milli Vanilli’s U.S. manager, would not say directly whether his act lip-syncs on stage. But he did comment on Cohen’s New Jersey “disclosure” measure, which mandates that an artist’s name appear on the face of a ticket with a notice that the entire show or portions thereof are recorded. Failure to comply could mean penalties of up to $50,000 for promoters and up to $5,000 for authorized ticket vendors.


“The bill is ludicrous,” Headlee said. “It would be like Burt Reynolds having to announce before a movie that the hair on his head was not his own, that he was wearing a toupee.”

Headlee rejects the idea that fans are being hoodwinked.

“I’ve seen about 50 Milli Vanilli shows and I can honestly say that there isn’t one person who comes to see them who leaves disappointed,” Headlee said. “This is the wave of the ‘90s. Fans demand that dance artists get up there and do a live video. And no one leaves disappointed.”

Dick Scott, manager of New Kids on the Block and president of Dick Scott Entertainment, maintains that lip-syncing in certain situations can be a valid solution to the problem of executing elaborate dance routines.

“I love artists who can sing and, personally, I hate to see lip-syncing done in concert, especially when it is obvious,” Scott said in a telephone interview from his New York office. “But the problem is that it is very difficult to sing and duplicate specific songs when they require complicated movements and fast-paced choreography.

“If we use a tape, we make every effort to make sure that the tape blends into the show, so that it doesn’t detract from the performance. The main thing, as far as I’m concerned, is that the show should be entertaining.”

Electronically enhanced singing is not the only technological illusion under attack on the concert circuit.


Music critics and some musicians repeatedly charge that the increased use of electronic keyboards and computer programming has reduced the contribution of live musicians on stage to theatrical mimicry.

They complain that live performances have degenerated into shallow reconstructions of video shoots that seem to place a higher premium on visual spectacle than musical innovation.

With the invention of digital sampling (a process that allows any sound to be digitally analyzed, captured and stored in computer memory to be replayed on demand), and digital sequencing (a computerized player-piano of sorts), the demand for musical dexterity on instruments is diminishing.

Anthony Marinelli of Sonar Productions, a Hollywood recording studio that specializes in tracks generated by the Synclavier--the Cadillac of digital sampling/sequencing instruments--worries about the impact of the glamour-oriented, high-tech concert scene.

“We may be looking at a whole new breed of musician coming up here,” Marinelli said. “A bunch of good-looking graduates from the Hair Institute of Technology who can lip-sync.”

Marinelli says artists employ sampled vocal and instrumental sounds on stage for a variety of reasons.


“It’s cheaper. It’s more consistent. It sounds bigger than life and, unlike live musicians, it always stays in tune,” Marinelli said. “On the downside, it’s like listening to a tape recorder, and to me that isn’t what buying a ticket for a concert is all about.”

But the concerns aren’t just aesthetic ones. Jerry Redmond, vice president of the Musicians Union Local 47 in Los Angeles, worries that modern technology is putting musicians out of work.

Live orchestras employed at resort hotels are probably the most obvious casualties of technological fallout. Following a bitter series of ineffective strikes during the ‘80s, house musicians in Atlantic City and Las Vegas were given their walking papers and replaced at revues by recorded music.

As a result, Bob Glasel, president of New York’s Musicians Union Local 802, says music unions around the country have put down their picket signs and begun to seek relief through legislation.

“It’s the same everywhere--pop concerts, dance clubs, casinos, circuses--technology is the trend,” Glasel said. “The public is getting ripped off.”

At the urging of Local 802, State Assemblyman Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Consumer Affairs, introduced a bill in New York that calls for full disclosure in advertising as to whether instrumental music heard at an event will be live or reproduced.


In California, Local 47 of the Musicians Union and the California State Theatrical Federation have endorsed Assemblyman Bob Epple’s plan to introduce a similar proposal in the legislature.

Meanwhile the debate continues.

New Kids manager Dick Scott says “People pay for entertainment and that’s all they care about. They want to feel something in their heart. They expect artists to fulfill their expectations, they aren’t really concerned with how artists accomplish it.”

Scott suggests that any truth-in-advertising proposal is an insult to the intelligence of the audience.

“Take our upcoming tour, for instance. We’re going to feature a number of magic acts. Will that mean that I have to alert the audience before every show that when one of the guys levitates or disappears during the performance that it is only an illusion? Is that what it’s coming to?”