Mouth is moving but song is canned


Of all the lost causes in the pop-music world, the most poignant may belong to the 3,500 fans who recently signed an online petition begging Britney Spears not to lip-synch on her coming tour.

Spears, in keeping with the dominant star etiquette, has firmly denied the practice ("I don't lip-synch," she told a group of reporters by telephone in November). But no less an authority than her manager, Larry Rudolph, begs to differ. He said in a phone interview that Spears' tour will feature a mix of live and lip-synched vocals, and confirmed that past tours have included the same.

"On those numbers that are difficult, if not impossible, for her to sing completely live while she's performing," he said, "what we do is we'll put a backing track which will support her."

The practice of lip-synching is practically as old as recorded music. But now, after decades of derision and outrage, audiences are warming up to the fakery. In chat rooms and fan sites, Spears' petitioners have been shouted down by peers from around the world who not only don't mind a little gimmickry -- they prefer it. They may have no choice: Live pop performances rely on an ever-more-intricate mix of live music, prerecorded sound and high-tech tricks, including new programs that produce the same flawless sound as a lip-synched performance, even if the person singing is jumping around, hanging upside-down or just plain out of tune.

Consider the Super Bowl halftime show. Last year, outraged viewers accused Shania Twain of lip-synching her performance (she sang; the instrumentals were canned). But these purists missed a far more intriguing development.

According to Paul Liszewski, the project manager for the broadcast's audio operations, one performer's vocals -- Liszewski wouldn't say whose -- were electronically altered, in real time, to correct off-key notes just as they were coming out of the singer's mouth. Yesterday's halftime show, which included performances by Janet Jackson, Kid Rock, P. Diddy and Nelly, also included a mix of live and prerecorded singing and music. Most, but not all, of the vocalists were performing live, Liszewski said.

Of course, like those who once felt amplification was too artificial, some people still hold dear the notion that concerts should feature only live singing. Fans of traditional rock bands like Coldplay or the Strokes, for example, would be unlikely to tolerate a great many technical shortcuts. But for an increasing portion of the pop-music audience, perfection is more desirable than authenticity -- especially when they're paying almost $100 a ticket for an elaborately choreographed concert.

These concerts are about spectacle and sheer star proximity, not the miracle of live-music production -- and the proof may be in the microphones that are placed in the audience during concert recordings to capture cheering and clapping. Timothy Powell is the owner of Metro Mobile Recording of Chicago, which has taped shows by Paul McCartney and Radiohead, as well as a recent female lip-syncher Powell declined to name. During songs, his microphones pick up a constant stream of fan chatter, including cell-phone conversations. "I don't know if they're even listening to the show that much," he said.

Oddly, lip-synching got its big break because of union regulations, according to Marc Wein- garten, author of Station to Station: The History of Rock 'n' Roll on Television. No one could quite figure out what sort of royalties singers deserved for a live TV performance, so in the early days they just faked it. Later, the practice continued out of sheer expediency. On American Bandstand and most variety shows of the 1960s, vocals and instrumentals were all faked; Keith Moon, the late drummer for the Who, famously registered his contempt for the custom by flubbing his part on the Smothers Brothers' show.

Still, those performances were the exception; most Americans still got their music on the radio. But the enormous popularity of MTV, with its almost exclusively lip-synched videos, ushered in an era in which average music fans might happily spend hours a day, every day, watching singers just mouth the words. (Milli Vanilli famously got in trouble, but that was for lip-synching to other singers' vocals.)

"The production values of the videos themselves are so slick," Weingarten said, "the artifice almost vanishes for kids. And then when they see a band live, they want that replicated."

They also want to see an extravaganza. Around this time, artists like Madonna and Janet Jackson set new standards for showmanship, with concerts that included not only elaborate costumes and precision-timed pyrotechnics but also highly athletic dancing. These effects came at the expense of live singing.

One former record executive, who insisted that he not be named, recalled being in the front row for a Janet Jackson performance and seeing her count dance steps with her lips while her singing voice played over the public address system.

Meanwhile, the rise of hip-hop -- which generally uses live vocals but recorded instrumentals -- brought credibility to the use of prerecorded music on the concert stage. "There were plenty of times at House of Blues when artists would walk in, hand a tape to the front-of-house engineer and say, 'That's my show,'" said Dave Wells, the former manager of sound production for House of Blues clubs across the country and now a production consultant and audio engineer with Sunbelt Scenic Studios, in Tempe, Ariz.

Television award shows sometimes seem like nonstop parades of lip-synched gimmickry, but according to Ken Ehrlich, the producer of next Sunday's Grammy Awards, that show will feature only live vocals. That means that the rock duo the White Stripes will play every note of their performance but that a funk-music tribute featuring the hip-hop duo OutKast is expected to include sampled music.

Paul Shefrin, the spokesman for the American Music Awards, said artists on that show are free to lip-synch if they like, although he added that "very few" do. And the country-rock-rapper Kid Rock began his performance at the 2002 American Music Awards with a mannequin and a tape recorder in an apparent protest of canned vocals.

At the Super Bowl, however, a concern for "authenticity" pales in comparison to the overwhelming logistics of staging a show that big, that fast. The halftime show, which features four acts, has to be set up and ready for broadcast in just three to five minutes. That doesn't allow time for double-checking live microphones and instruments. "When you're broadcasting to 800 million people," said Liszewski, the Super Bowl project manager, "you don't like to take chances."

And what kind of performance would rank as "authentic" when the original is a collage of more than 100 layers of professionally engineered sound? "This has become a business of sampled stuff and little boxes that sit in back of the stage that are full of symphony orchestras," Ehrlich said.

Consider Bruce Springsteen, whom many consider the ultimate live artist -- and who's so averse to lip-synching that he insists on singing new live tracks for all his videos. Still, his last tour featured digitized samples of the Pakistani singer Asif Ali Khan during the song "Worlds Apart." Similarly, managers for R.E.M., the Offspring and No Doubt said those bands have each used sampled sounds or voices during their stage shows.

With all the complexly layered, prerecorded vocals that echo around a stadium -- electronically adjusted, in real time, to sound studio-perfect -- is it possible to detect the difference between lip-synching and what earlier cultures referred to as singing? The answer, the experts say, is yes and no.

Albert Leccese, the vice president of engineering at Audio Analysts, a company that has provided concert sound equipment and engineers for artists such as Norah Jones, the Offspring, No Doubt, Twain and Springsteen, says that there are tricks to look out for, like sampled background voices from a keyboard: "If you see, for instance, that there's three vocal mics and it sounds like 15 because it sounds like there's a choir back there, that's usually coming from a keyboard player."

During a concert at Madison Square Garden in August, the R&B; singer R. Kelly did not even bring a backing band with him, working strictly with prerecorded tracks. At one point, he put down his microphone and let his recorded vocals keep singing. By all accounts, the audience loved it.

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