Have you ever seen your favorite musicians perform in concert and wonder how they can sound so perfect live? Well, prepare to have your naive bubble burst—sometimes they can’t. And if their shows involve elaborate choreography that would leave even the fittest athlete breathless, they definitely can’t. Instead, they get a little help from backup tracks that they lip-synch or mime along to, a practice that’s seen as necessary within the music industry but controversial to fans outside of it.
Chances are, at least one of your favorite singers has been guilty of lip-synching once or twice. Everyone from Madonna to the Beatles to Michael Jackson—as well as too many other pop stars to name—has done it. The trick is to do it so that the audience is none the wiser—something these popular performers would’ve done well to remember.
Milli Vanilli’s Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus have the dubious honor of being the most famous phony duo in music history. They won a Grammy and a few American Music Awards during their heyday, but trouble started after one of their hit songs, “Girl You Know It’s True,” skipped during a supposedly live performance on MTV in 1989. Shortly afterward, it was revealed that neither Morvan nor Pilatus was responsible for Milli Vanilli’s songs. Goodbye, Best New Artist statuette.
It’s been a tough road for Simpson, what with playing second fiddle to her older sister, Jessica. She’s tried hard to escape the shadow of her famous sibling, but unfortunately, the way she made headlines—this infamous SNL episode—was also what put her fledgling music career six feet under. During a later interview on TRL, she blamed acid reflux disease for her inability to sing that night.
This is one of the more well-known examples of lip-synching, probably because, as you can tell from the video, lead singer Freddie Mercury isn’t trying even remotely to hide it. He mimed “Radio Ga Ga” at Italy’s Sanremo Festival in 1984. But the song is so epic and Mercury has such an electric stage presence that it’s questionable whether anyone noticed or cared.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, think back to the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing. She’s the little girl who sang “Ode to the Motherland” (also translated as “A Hymn to My Country”)—except her voice isn’t what the audience heard. It belonged to a girl named Yang Peiyi, who originally won the singing contest for the ceremony but was deemed unsuitable for the camera because of her less-than-perfect teeth. As the musical designer explained to the press when he came forward with the news in August, “I think it is fair to both Lin Miaoke and Yang Peiyi—after all, we have a perfect voice, a perfect image, and a perfect show, in our team’s view, all together.” Sure, that doesn’t sound the least bit creepy.
50 Cent was all set to pretend to sing “Amusement Park” at the BET awards in 2007, but a screw-up caused the instrumental version to play instead. Other performers might’ve tried to improvise at that moment, but Fiddy decided to wander helplessly around the stage. “I’m trying to figure out where everybody at,” he finally says. (He was also trying to figure out where his recorded voice was at.) He ends the performance by saying, “Vitamin water, ladies and gentlemen,” because if you’ve already embarrassed yourself, you might as well get some publicity for your sponsors, too.
That Spears lip-synchs and always has isn’t earth-shattering news, especially considering her energetic, dance-intensive concerts. But lately, some of the spark has gone out of Britney; her most recent tour, The Circus Starring Britney Spears, in 2009, was panned by critics and fans alike for her lackluster moves and obvious miming, especially once it hit Australia. She barely moves in the video, making her lip-synching all the less justified.
Hudson received a lot of flack for lip-synching at the 2009 Super Bowl, even though it was the first time she’d performed in public following the murder, a few months earlier, of three of her family members. Regardless, the criticism was unfair, because it wasn’t her choice. The show’s producer required both her and fellow performer Faith Hill to record backup tracks, rather than risk live snafus. Apparently, in the case of songs as significant and emotionally charged as the National Anthem, you can’t leave much room for risk.
Singers at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade are also required to use backup tracks. In fact, as Kylie Minogue pointed out on Twitter after she came under fire for lip-synching in 2010, “Relax, peeps, EVERYONE has to mime …” That may be so, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to do it well—at least not if Ashley Tisdale’s inability to mouth her own lyrics accurately is any indication.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with lip-synching if the performance requires it. For example, if Beyoncé mimes “Naughty Boy” while hanging upside-down from a rope, who’s going to blame her? The problem is when there’s no evident need to fake it, and when fans have paid good money to see these stars blow them away live (ahem, Ms. Spears). If that’s the case, the performance had better include an amazing light show or something. Otherwise, fans are better off putting their ticket money toward a really good set of stereo headphones.