As usual, it was Madonna who put it best.

Midway through her "Blonde Ambition" concerts, a dancer dressed as everybody's favorite comic strip detective would turn up on stage, toting a copy of the "Dick Tracy" soundtrack album. But when the dancer made it clear he couldn't sing any of the selections, Madonna was cheekily understanding.

"You can't sing?" she would tease. "That's all right. Lots of people who can't sing make records."

Last week we learned just how right she was. Milli Vanilli, whose debut album sold 7 million copies and won a Grammy for Best New Artist, may have used Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan for videos and interviews, but the group's singing was done by someone else.

Now, it's not every day that a successful pop group is revealed as an outright fraud. But is this the scandal it seems?

No, not really. Milli Vanilli may be the most egregious example of how pop music values image over ability, but it's hardly the first. In fact, there's quite a tradition to this sort of recording studio chicanery.

Gary Lewis and the Playboys, for example, had almost nothing to do with their biggest hit, the 1965 chart-topper "This Diamond Ring." Not only were the instrumental tracks recorded by studio ringers including Leon Russell and Hal Blaine, but the vocals reflected more of producer Snuff Garrett's skills than Lewis'. "Gary wasn't a very good singer," Garrett said later. "I used to mix him with other singers. When I got through mixing him, he sounded like Mario Lanza."

Phil Spector went even further with "He's a Rebel." Upon first hearing the song, he felt it was an obvious hit for the Crystals. But that group was at home in New York, while Spector was recording in Los Angeles. So he used a different set of singers -- a group called the Blossoms -- but released the record under the Crystals' name. (Darlene Love, the Blossoms' lead singer, even wound up cutting the follow-up, "He's Sure the Boy I Love").

Similar examples abound, from the bubble-gum bands cobbled together by producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz (if you ever wondered why the Ohio Express and 1910 Fruitgum Company sounded so similar, it's because singer Joey Levine was the voice behind both), to contemporary girl groups like the Cover Girls or Seduction, whose members are often hired after recording has been completed.

Which, according to recent reports, was pretty much the case with Milli Vanilli. Frank Farian, the German record producer who created the group, now claims that he had already cut "Girl You Know It's True" when Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan turned up at his studio; impressed by their hair and clothes sense, Farian hired the two to front the band.

After months of rumors alleging that Pilatus and Morvan lip-synced onstage and did even less in the studio, last week's revelations hardly came as a shock. Pilatus played for pity, crying to the Los Angeles Times that "The last two years of our lives have been a total nightmare." But the group garnered little sympathy from the music community -- hardly surprising, considering how few had forgiven Pilatus for boasting that his group was more talented than Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones.

So far, the most irate response has come from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, whose members voted Milli Vanilli the Best New Artist of 1989. "The people who serve on the awards and nominations committee do not take very kindly to being shucked and jived about something like this," fumed NARAS president Michael Greene, clearly miffed at having given a Grammy to two guys whose musical ability consisted largely of being able to dance without tripping over their hair. (As of Friday, NARAS officials were considering rescinding the Milli Vanilli Grammy.)

Still, it's hard to get too hot under the collar over the incident, because what happened with Milli Vanilli doesn't really reflect a desire to deceive. Rather, what such groups ultimately illustrate is that when it comes to recording, the producer is often far more important than the performer.

Clearly, that was the case with Garrett, Spector, and Kasenetz and Katz. But it's even more the case today, as drum machines, digital samplers and other advances in musical technology change the balance of power between producer and performer.

Particularly in R&B; and dance music, the producer is often a one-man band, providing everything from the rhythm bed to the synthesized sweetening. As a result, the recording's only "real" identity is the lead voice, and the name on the cover. (That's as true for bands as it is for solo artists; take the Time, whose 1981 debut was actually recorded by Prince, with Morris Day providing the vocals.)

Still, once a song is on the radio, does it matter who did what? The only true test of a recording is how it sounds coming out of the speakers; whether it was recorded live, fabricated by machines or performed by anonymous stand-ins hardly matters to the listener.

"A record is your one and only opportunity to get the song down on tape, exactly the way you hear it in your head," said Joe Elliott, of the hard rock group Def Leppard. "And if that means doing sampling, if that means using machines, if that means taking two weeks over one vocal, then do it. If you can afford to do it, and it's not right any other way, then why limit yourself?"

In fact, the real lesson of the Milli Vanilli affair is that Frank Farian should have simply eliminated the middleman, and put his own name on the album. That way he could have enjoyed the sort of success Jellybean Benitez saw with "Who Found Who." Benitez didn't sing the song; Elisa Fiorello did. But it was his idea, his arrangement, his recording contract.

And his hit, too.

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