The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
Britney Spears’ entire 2007 VMA performance; Justin Bieber vomiting on stage while his track continued to play; the drama surrounding Beyoncé’s rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" at Obama’s second inauguration; Travis Scott’s visual packed set at the 2018 NBA Awards; Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, hell, even Michael Jackson and The Beatles. So many of the globe’s musical mega stars have found themselves, at some stage, in the epicenter of a universal facepalm over lip-syncing – regardless of whether they actually lip-synced or not.
The argument over whether an artist loses credibility if they choose to lip-sync is not a new one. Employing such tactics — if clocked by the audience — automatically illuminates them under a spotlight that calls their talent into question. It sparks fan wars over whose choice in lyrical bae is more valid; whose stardom is based in integrity; and who places importance on fame over authenticity.
In both press and social media, the popular opinion seems to be that if you opt to mime during a performance — be it at a concert, a TV appearance, or where ever — then you’re arrogantly attempting to trick your fans. But is this really the case? While there are certainly arguments to be made on either side of the lip-syncing debate, one could contend that this furor can, or perhaps should, be boiled down to two major factors: how egregious the artist’s behavior is, and external circumstances.
In other words, let’s try to weigh up logistics and attitude before throwing a performer into the sea.
Elements & expectation
For starters, the difference between an artist miming through a huge, choreographed, highly-produced concert, and one where the star stands statuesque, belting ballads into a mic, are worlds apart. Both performances carry immense value, but one is more logistically taxing than the other. Then you add in crowd and band noise, both of which can make it very difficult for the artist to actually hear themselves singing. And if the concert is held outside, at a festival for example, you can throw weather conditions into the mix too. This is all before you consider that singing live is really hard to begin with. It’s also the reason why you’re much likelier to read headlines scolding Rihanna for lip-syncing, than Céline Dion or Adele (both of whom have suffered health complications for singing live, but more on that in a minute).
Additionally, these elemental factors play into the idea of perfection — the pressure of which is monumental, especially for the highest-grossing artists. Many concert goers arrive with the expectation that they’re about to receive a live rendition of the latest album drop and the biggest hits, but forget the most important word: live. Sound that was recorded in a quiet studio and edited afterwards will never sound the same live. But that type of base-level fan expectation places a hell of a weighty load on an artist’s shoulders. And while this is not to say that the pressure to be “perfect” is an excuse to use pre-recorded vocals in concert, if you think about how you sound in your bedroom versus how you sound when bouncing around at an open air gig while it’s raining, you might get a better idea of how the experience translates.
Touring & health
The idea of perfection, performance continuity, and audience expectation becomes increasingly apparent when considering lengthy tour schedules. Even a set of pipes on the most well-oiled of androids would struggle to slam out album-worthy vocals evening after evening for a period of months without sacrificing something. More often than not, when an artist opts to perform live, that “something” is their health.
The most common ailments experienced by musicians, especially when touring, are vocal nodules and polyps. In a nutshell, these are growths — blisters of sorts — that cover the vocal folds inside your larynx. Normally, the folds vibrate when you talk or sing, and air moves from your lungs through the folds to your mouth. Nodules and polyps restrict this movement, and the more you ignore and abuse them, the harder they grow. The consequence of this can at best result in cancelled tour dates, and at worst the end of a career.
Because of vocal damage, Adele had to cancel tour dates in 2017 and have surgery; Björk did the same in 2012. In 2013, Frank Ocean tore his vocal chords and had to cancel a sold-out Australian tour. Justin Timberlake was hospitalized in 2005 to remove his nodules. Elton John’s surgery changed his voice irrevocably.
No matter how disappointed you are to realize that you’ve shelled out an absurd amount of cash to see your idols live in concert, surely it’s better that they’re still actually able to perform — and, equally, entertain.
TV appearances & award shows
Ok, so perhaps large concerts and tour dates are understandable, but what about TV appearances and award shows? Often comprising a couple of tracks or a medley, the endurance excuse doesn’t seem to fly as high here. Grammy-nominated recording and mix engineer Ariel Chobaz, however, would beg to differ.
Explaining to ABC News back in 2014, Chobaz explained that the reliance on lip-syncing of course varies depending on the situation, but often it’s down to a factor most people wouldn’t consider: scheduling. "I've been involved in some very big broadcast shows, like the Grammys and the American Music Awards, and the time schedule is so precise. It's physically not possible to mic an entire band for every segment that comes up."
Also, TV performances are so extra these days — think Gaga at the Superbowl — that those concert factors still apply. “I think there are times when artists are allowed a pass, because shows have become so gargantuan, in terms of production, and dancing, and spinning around on a trapeze," Chobaz said. They leave little room for error, and in a way the audience is more tuned in on any lyrical slip ups than if they were watching from a crowd.
Ultimately, as Chobaz agrees, the enjoyment you reap from a live performance can be boiled down to whether or not the artist has a “certain quality of magic.” He continues, “If someone doesn't have that texture, that feeling, that emotion, no matter how much we tune it, it won't sound good. It'll sound terrible.”
And that magic doesn’t just lend itself to sound — energy is a huge factor too. When arrogance enters the picture — lip-syncing, standing on stage, clearly not giving any fucks on how they’re coming across to an audience — that’s when fans have every right to be peeved.
How do you feel about artists lip syncing? Let us know in the comments.
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