Three months after the Milli Vanilli pop scandal, lip-syncing remains a live issue in the record business.
Anyone short on evidence need look no further than the hottest dance-pop hit of the season: C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat."
The million-selling song has topped the pop, dance and R&B; charts in recent weeks, thanks in part to veteran R&B; singer Martha Wash's dynamic "Everybody dance now" vocal hook.
But you'd have to be a detective to figure out from the liner notes, where Wash is just one of six female background vocalists cited, that she delivers the chorus' key line.
Most people would probably assume from the album packaging that the singer on "Gonna Make You Sweat" is Zelma Davis, who, after all, is the only woman on the album cover.
Davis is also featured in the video of the hit song mouthing the "Everybody dance now" line. But, in fact, the lean model is lip-syncing to Wash's vocal.
"That's me singing all right," Wash said. "But not only am I not getting paid any royalties for it, the producers hired Zelma Davis as a prop to lip-sync my vocal part in the music video. Why shouldn't I be upset?"
Wash--an R&B; vocalist best known for her early '80s work in Two Tons of Fun and the Weather Girls--filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against C+C Music Factory's Robert Clivilles and David Cole, charging the producers and their record company, Sony Music Entertainment, with fraud, deceptive packaging and commercial appropriation.
In the Dec. 11 action, the singer claimed she was paid less than $1,000 for her work on "Gonna Make You Sweat" and that the hit contains an edited compilation of vocal parts she recorded last June for an unrelated demonstration tape.
The defendants deny any wrongdoing.
"We've been made to look like we're villains in this case," said David Cole, who has produced hit songs for Natalie Cole, Grace Jones and the Cover Girls. "But in actuality we're the victims here."
Gail Edwin, vice president and litigation counsel for Sony Music Entertainment, also disputed Wash's claims and said the company intends to fight the case in court.
"It is my understanding that in a rap song the lead vocalist is the person who does the rap," Edwin said in a phone interview from her New York office. "Based on information from the producers of the album, we believe she was paid properly and that the album reflects her credit as a background vocalist." (Freedom Williams does the rapping in the song and is credited on both the album and the single).
This is not the first time Wash has filed suit against Clivilles and Cole for alleged misuse of her voice.
Last July, the San Francisco native sued the producers and A&M; Records for unauthorized use of her voice on Seduction's Top 20 pop hit "You're My One and Only True Love"--a recording and video that credited model/singer April Harris as the lead vocalist.
Wash also sued RCA Records for commercial appropriation last year after the company released an album by the European dance band Black Box that featured unauthorized tracks of her singing.
The RCA album--not produced by Clivilles and Cole--spawned two Top 30 hit singles, "Everybody Everybody" and "I Don't Know Anybody Else," plus two popular videos that employed an exotic model named Katrin Quinol who lip-synced to Wash's voice.
RCA settled the case out-of-court in December, agreeing to pay Wash a "substantial" financial fee. The company also signed her to an eight-album solo artist contract and is currently financing her national tour.
"In the Black Box case, our company in England was dealing with another company in Italy, so it was like three times removed from what we were told in New York," RCA Records president Joseph Galante said. "Once we were made aware that Martha was the real singer, we did the right thing."
A&M; has been negotiating with Wash's attorney since December and is prepared to settle the Seduction case.
Al Cafaro, president of A&M; Records, said that due to pending litigation he could not specifically talk about the Seduction lawsuit, but suggested that the industry, as a whole, needs to begin paying closer attention to lip-sync productions.
"It's true that producers are part of the hit magic in a record and agreements with producers can bring exciting new talent to a label," Cafaro said. "Record companies, however, must be involved in every step of the process. Smart money should invest in real talent, not just images."
Last November, Milli Vanilli front men Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan were stripped of their Grammy after the photogenic duo admitted they never sang a note on their 7 million-selling album "Girl, You Know It's True."
Considering the negative publicity generated by the Milli caper as well as the Seduction and Black Box lawsuits, Wash said she was "astonished" that Sony "had the nerve" to release the C+C Music Factory song and video.
"It's just plain wrong the way the music industry is dealing with the lip-sync situation," said Wash in a phone interview from Milwaukee. "All these accountants and lawyers who are running the business lately seem to have lost touch with what music really is."
What music actually is these days, however, seems to be anything but real.
Since the advent of MTV, record companies have increasingly come to place a higher premium on visual spectacle than musical performance. Plus, many of today's hottest producers pride themselves in manufacturing digitally sampled audio illusions with sophisticated electronic machines and computer programs.
"With technology being what it is today no one can really be sure that what you're watching or listening to is live or Memorex," said RCA's Galante. "Modern technology allows producers to sample and combine one person's voice with another's image."
Galante suggested that record companies need to stop viewing lip-synced music video projects as aberrations and begin recognizing such endeavors as a new musical format. He compared audio technological advances with special effects in science fiction movies.
"The only difference between the music business and the movies is that when you watch 'Star Wars' you're aware of what's going on because you've seen some behind-the-scenes special about how the illusions were made," Galante said. "It's just that no one has ever been exposed to what goes on behind the scenes in a recording studio."
Michael Rosenfeld, a music industry attorney not involved in the Wash cases, suggested that deception occurs when producers do not inform record companies who is actually singing on a recording. Contract terms between producers and record firms are currently being renegotiated to offer companies better protection against misrepresentation by producers, Rosenfeld said.
"If a producer signs a contract and misrepresents the facts about who is really performing, the company should be able to take it out of their hide," Rosenfeld said. "Producers must understand that performers have to be paid and credited or sign releases and that those doing the lip-syncing must be designated."
Galante agrees. He believes the time has come for the industry to embrace the technological revolution and inform the public.
"What companies need to do is to begin educating the public in liner notes on our products as to exactly what makes up these records," Galante said. "That way, when the consumer buys it, they realize the voice is one person and the face in the video is somebody else. Then what it comes down to is whether they like it or not and want to purchase it."
Still, Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences--whose organization revoked Milli Vanilli's 1990 Grammy after their lip-syncing ruse was exposed--said he could not imagine a day when the academy might consider legitimizing a "special effects" artist category in the pop music awards.
"I do not see lip-syncing as a technical achievement in pop music," Greene said in a phone interview from New York. "I understand that we have moved into the age of video where image is often emphasized as much as music in marketing, but we award Grammys for excellence in musical performance not packaging."