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RE: Put Your Voice Where Your Mouth Is

Title: RE: Put Your Voice Where Your Mouth Is
At 9:38 AM -0700 12/29/04, Krispen Hartung wrote:
Too bad we can't read this without signing up as a member for the New
York Times.  Can you copy the text into an email to the group.  Not that
I can't signup, but it's sort of a pain for one article.

Really? It wasn't that way previously. In fact, just last week I sent TImes links to some people without problems.

Here's the text:

Put Your Voice Where Your Mouth Is
Published: December 29, 2004

ASHLEE SIMPSON got caught with her microphone down on "Saturday Night Live" in October, and five weeks later, on Dec. 5, "Good Morning America," which had been especially gleeful in its post-mortem of the debacle, presented Lindsay Lohan in a "live singing debut"- lip-syncing just like Ms. Simpson. Good thing this was a slow news year so that the press could pay suitable attention to a cultural issue that has shocked many Americans over the age of 16. Forget the occupation of Iraq, the burgeoning debt, the war over values, and the passion of the Christ: this was the year we were obliged to face up to the fact that show business is show business.

Among other performers accused of moving their lips while a machine does the labor are Britney Spears, Luciano Pavarotti, Shania Twain, Beyoncé and Madonna. (One person who won't be accused of lip-syncing is Kevin Spacey, but everyone who has seen "Beyond the Sea" wishes he had.) As for performers who sing in tandem with prepared tapes or backup tracks, this page could no more contain their number than it could that of film actors with lasered body parts. It's a wonder anyone bothers to deny it. Back in February it was reported that fans of Ms. Spears prefer her to lip-sync - despite her denials of the practice - because they expect flawless digitalization when they pay serious money for a concert. Besides, as Ms. Simpson complained to Katie Couric on "Today," it's not like she engaged in anorexia or wardrobe malfunction.

Indeed, the worse thing she did, beyond displaying an inability to ad-lib and the childlike inclination to blame others (many others) for her mishap, was to reveal that behind the curtain of contemporary show business is a man with his finger on a button. The father of modern entertainment was not P. T. Barnum, but Thomas Edison. We have been living in an increasingly lip-synced world for some 75 years, and we have yet to reach the bottom of a slippery slope. No profitable advance in technology has ever vanished, and this one is here to stay - along with miniature microphones on Broadway, fake laughter on television, computer-generated images in the movies and Donald Trump. You want reality? Go to a ballgame. Oh, right: forgot.

Baby boomers who now shake their heads in dismay at what the world is coming to grew up with lip-syncing. On Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," there was no band and no bandstand, only the fear that the record might skip while a grinning performer gyrated, his or her lips moving as mutely as those of Steve Reeves in "Hercules." Old movies that were then a routine part of network television offered jokes and plots built on the deception of lip-syncing. In "Singin' in the Rain," Jean Hagen is laughed out of the theater when the audience learns that she is mouthing Debbie Reynolds. In "Road to Morocco," Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour reluctantly lip-sync one another.

Lip-syncing got its first and steadiest boost in Hollywood, shortly after the introduction of sound: in 1929, MGM prerecorded an intricate number, "The Wedding of the Painted Doll," for "The Broadway Melody." Most sound engineers regarded dubbing as undignified; they argued that music ought to be live, especially given the technological advances that allowed them to capture vocal nuance. They were overruled by three problems, all solved by lip-syncing.

 First, singing is physically constraining - a singer cannot maintain pitch and vibrato while leaping around a stage - and movies depend on movement. An example of that dilemma can be seen in the Marx Brothers first feature film, "The Cocoanuts," in which the romantic couple stops the film in its tracks in the seconds it takes them to draw a breath or summon the proper vocal mask.

 The second problem was one of economics. By lip-syncing musical numbers, the production did not have to install an orchestra on the set or worry about repeated takes or the noise made by crane shots. In 1930, Universal was frantic to stop the hemorrhaging of money in completing its revue, "The King of Jazz," featuring the bandleader Paul Whiteman. Whiteman suggested that the musical numbers be prerecorded; that way carpenters could hammer new sets while musicians, singers and dancers went through the motions on the ones already built.
The studios invented and resolved the third problem when they realized that audiences didn't notice lip-syncing, let alone mind it. Producers reasoned that if actors could lip-sync themselves, they could just as easily lip-sync others. You want Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner but don't trust their singing? Bring in stunt-singers - like in "Singin' in the Rain." During the same year Whiteman was filming "King of Jazz," Duke Ellington introduced the song "Three Little Words" in the film "Check and Double Check," but the three musicians he assigned the vocal part weren't very good. So Ellington asked the director to hire the Rhythm Boys (the trio, with Bing Crosby, that Whiteman made famous). Since the film couldn't show a racially integrated ensemble - white singers in a black band - the Rhythm Boys stood behind a curtain with a microphone, while band members lip-synced them. How far a slide down the slippery slope is it from Audrey Hepburn pretending to sing in "My Fair Lady" to Milli Vanilli pretending to sing on their Grammy winning 1990 album, "Girl You Know It's True"?

 In 1946, Crosby revolutionized the entertainment world when he walked out on his NBC contract, which forbade him from prerecording his radio show. Crosby reasoned that taping a program would allow him to edit and perfect it; besides, he had prerecorded countless shows for the troops overseas and no one complained. The networks argued that audiences would never accept a canned show in a live medium. The networks, of course, were wrong. On one occasion, Crosby's engineers realized that the program was a minute or so short; one of them found a piece of tape with applause and laughter and suggested editing it in to fill the time. How far a slide is it from borrowed laughter to fake laughter to fake audiences?

 Crosby, paradoxically, was one of the few musical film stars who occasionally insisted on filming a song live. In Frank Capra's "Riding High" of 1950, Crosby had a complicated number, "Sunshine Cake," involving Colleen Gray, Clarence Muse and lots of physical business, including Crosby playing spoons and Muse playing guitar. When you see the film you are really seeing those performers singing and dancing. Or are you? It happened that Muse could not play guitar or convincingly fake it, so for the close-ups they brought in a guitarist, Perry Botkin, and blacked up his hands. (Why they didn't hire a black guitarist is another story.) How far a slide is it from fake hands to a fake Fred Astaire vacuuming in a commercial to a fake cast in "The Polar Express"?

We protest that live performance is different, the last bastion of reality. But we surrendered to illusion when we accepted amplification as a substitute for natural acoustics long ago. A series of Memorex ads proclaimed that we could no longer be certain if Ella Fitzgerald or a mechanical device was popping glassware with high notes. For that matter, we couldn't be certain if singing had anything to do with the shattering of the glass because, after all, it was a TV ad. On Broadway, singers are so over-microphoned that their disembodied voices suffuse the theater, coming at you from every direction except the singers' throats. If a modern-day Mary Martin were suffering from, say, acid reflux, and were to expertly lip-sync her performance one night, how many in the audience would know? Or care?

 Recording devices, along with every technological development since the taming of electricity, frighten us. Like the aborigine who fears his soul will be stolen by a photograph, we are made suspicious by the dehumanizing potential of canned speech. Movies have long exploited that mistrust. In Fritz Lang's "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse," made in 1933, the eponymous megalomaniac uses a recording device in order to pretend to be where he isn't. A decade later, Hitler did the same thing. In the mid-40's, when Crosby was making headlines because of his insistence on prerecording his radio show, a series of films exploited the nefarious side of deceptive recordings - to advance blackmail in "Nightmare Alley" and murder in "The Unsuspected" and "The Falcon's Alibi."

 By that time, Hollywood was dubbing more than vocals; feet-dubbers were also in demand, to match dance steps to scenes in which the dancers were filmed without sound. One of the best of them, Miriam Nelson, has told of dubbing the tap routine of a famous star with famously bad timing. Ms. Nelson asked the director if she should duplicate the star's taps or follow the music. The director told her to follow the music, explaining that if the audience heard the correct taps it would buy the illusion that the star was on point.

 We buy into worse illusions all the time. In the 1960's, it was a matter of pride for musicians as varied as Vladimir Horowitz and Dave Brubeck to refuse touch-ups on their live recordings. Does that kind of pride even exist in a world of automatic pitch shifters that can adjust off-key singing, and digital fixes that eliminate human error and a bit of humanity itself? The world in which Al Jolson (who lip-synced most of his film appearances in the 1930's and was himself lip-synced in "The Jolson Story") had to reach the last row of the highest balcony on lung power alone is long gone. Ladies and gentlemen, Jolie has left the building. Cue Ashlee Simpson.

Gary Giddins is the author, most recently, or "Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century" and "Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams."


Richard Zvonar, PhD      
(818) 788-2202