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Milli Vanilli and the Scapegoating of the Inauthentic

Pop music hangs on to the folk-era image of the individual artist communicating directly to her or his listeners. Milli Vanilli became martyrs to this myth of authenticity.
Ted Friedman

Issue #9, November 1993

In the summer of 1990, the American music industry performed a bizarre ritual. At a press conference, it was announced that the winners of that year's 'Best New Artist' award, Milli Vanilli, had had their prize revoked for misrepresenting their contributions to their own music; it had been discovered (though there was never much of a secret about it) that the group's putative members, Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, had not performed any of the vocals on their album. (The vocals were actually performed by Charles Shaw, John Davis, and Brad Howe.) Vanilli quickly became a running joke in mass culture. Rob and Fab appeared in a self-mocking chewing-gum commercial, lip-synching the Care-Free jingle. A class-action suit was filed, and eventually purchasers of Girl You Know It's True were given the opportunity to mail off for a rebate for fraud damages. And in 1991, Rob Pilatus attempted suicide by jumping out of his Beverly Hills Hotel suite. Milli Vanilli today are little more than a fading joke and a trivia question. (A comback album last year by Rob and Fab, featuring their own voices, predictably sank without a trace.) Although they'd sold ten million albums and scored five Top Five singles (including three Number Ones), their hit songs have been erased from the oldies playlists of radio stations across the nation. The only place I've come across any trace of Milli Vanilli in the past few years was on a recent episode of Beavis and Butthead, where the dazed metalheads could only stare in utter incomprehension at the two dancing, dreadlocked men on the screen.

But if Milli Vanilli's songs have been expunged from the collective memory, their disgrace remains a critical episode in the narrative contemporary popular music tells to explain itself. That 1990 press conference came in the midst of crisis in the shared assumptions about authenticity in popular music. A New Jersey congressman was proposing a law banning unannounced lip-synching at concerts. The cross-over of hip-hop represented by Milli-Vanilli's pop-rap fusion was introducing Top 40 audiences to remixing and sampling strategies that called into question assumptions about songs's originality. Synthesizers, originally exploited for their plastic, unnatural sound in the early 80s, had become the sonic norm, as familiar as amplified guitar strings. And sophisticated recording techniques had emerged which could filter and modify any voice into a radio-ready instrument.

Pop music-making in the 1990s has more to do with filmmaking than jamming in a garage: every song is a collection of tracks laid down by assorted musicians, edited together by producers, and fronted by charismatic performers. But while most viewers recognize the complex division of labor in moviemaking — nobody gets upset that actors don't do their own stunts — pop music hangs on to the folk-era image of the individual artist communicating directly to her or his listeners. Milli Vanilli became martyrs to this myth of authenticity. They were the recording industry's sacrifice meant to prove the integrity of the rest of their product — as if the music marketed under the names U2 or Janet Jackson WEREN'T every bit as constructed and mediated, just because the voices on the records matched the faces in the videos.

The sacrifice worked. Paula Abdul faced down a lawsuit from a former backup singer claiming Abdul's voice was barely audible on several of the tracks from her hit Forever Your Girl, and established her artistic credibility by singing ballads on the follow-up Spellbound. Rapper Biz Markie was successfully sued for unliscensed sampling, and now every hip-hop appropriation is contractually accounted for. Gangsta rap and grunge rock emerged as mass genres which laid special claims to authentic expression, and nobody smirked. Sure, the rules had changed somewhat: the hard-rockin' earnestness of Bruce Springsteen's comeback records in 1991 sounded painfully out of touch; in place of those plodding electric guitars, aging rockers discovered that they could shed the burden of their years and regain intimacy with their audiences by going acoustic — or at least 'Unplugged', which quickly developed to mean anything except electric guitars. Soon, post-Vanilli diva Mariah Carey was performing live on MTV just to prove her multi-octave range was an honest freak of nature, and not just a studio trick. Which begs the question, what the hell difference does it make whether Carey's dog-whistle-pitched shrieks are live or Memorex? The answer is that the only reason that painful noise impresses in the first place is because it demonstrates Carey's technical skills, the same way an Eddie Van Halen guitar run is supposed to wow us with his fingering prowess. We're asked to be impressed by the artists' mastery of their instruments. But that shriek at the end of Carey's "Emotions" is a ruse — the worst part of the song — and I'll take David Lee Roth over Eddie Van Halen any day.

In explaining the pleasures of mass culture, the aesthetic criteria that go along with the rubric of 'authenticity' — designations like 'talent' and 'quality' — are pretty useless standards of judgement — after-the-fact rationalizations, often, for more inexplicable attractions. Why do I love Milli Vanilli's Girl, You Know It's True? I can go on all day long about its neo-soul songcraft, its soaring synth-strings, its shimmering percussion. But do I think it's great because the people involved were 'talented'? Who the hell cares? It's not like I'm inviting them to dinner. Plenty of the greatest music ever made has been created by hacks, slackers, and no-names, who for whatever reasons stumbled into a little bit of genius. I should point out that just because Rob and Fab didn't have much to do with the creation of Milli Vanilli's music, it's not like nobody else did. The genius behind the Milli Vanilli sound, if you want to know, is producer Frank Farian, also responsible for disco pioneers Boney M. There was probably some specific mastermind behind the image and marketing of Milli Vanilli, as well, whose name is lost to history because of the biases of what gets to count as 'art' and what as 'packaging'. In any case, dividing up the responsibility for the bundle of sound and images known as Milli Vanilli may be a significant historical task, but it does little to make sense of the pleasures of the text. We can explain Farian's contribution to the bundle of sound and image known as 'Milli Vanilli' in terms of valorized technical skills. But how much credit should we give Rob and Fab for their wonderful, slightly off-base charisma? For their enormous pecs? For their great hair? These may be 'superficial' attributes, but they have AS much to do with aesthetic effect as rhythm tracks. To classify some qualities as 'talents' and others as 'superficial' may work for judging friends, but they have nothing to do with the play of images that makes up the art of mass culture.

None of this is to say that this art need be seen as in any way 'compromised' by its commodity status. That play of images can still create powerful resonances, provoke intense desires, and connote complex politics. Actually, what really blew my mind when Milli Vanilli first showed up was how appealingly, subversively *goofy* they were. I knew something was up when they could barely pronounce English in their few interviews (they're both from Germany). They had these huge pectoral muscles, but had none of that Schwarzenegger uebermensch belligerence; they might've looked muscle-bound, but they could dance. Actually, their costumes highlighted the irony of their gentle-giant appeal: they wore those power-shoulder jackets as if they didn't realize that with those bods, they didn't need them. They were big men wearing the drag of big men. And the weird dynamic they had going was so interestingly, almost incestuously (given how similar they looked to each other) queer — in the "Baby, Don't Forget My Number" video, for example, there's a woman who's the putative object of their interest, but they're obviously much more interested in each other.

Of course, that queerness goes a long way toward explaining why Milli Vanilli were picked out as the scapegoats for the music industry's 'authenticity' problem. It's no surprise that two effeminate-seeming men were attacked for failing to play a 'productive' role in the making of their music. In the gender scheme of capitalism as traditionally envisioned by capitalists and Marxists alike, where productive masculine workers create goods for passive, feminized consumers, the role of commodification gets coded as queer. Packaging, marketing, fashion, image-creation — long gay-associated cultural roles — are seen as parasitic, wasteful, non-reproductive, fetishistic mediations blocking an unalienated, 'authentic' relationship between producer and consumer. What this story leaves out — represses — is the physical and intellectual labor — the art — that goes into associating goods with cultural meanings. And what it can't explain are the undeniable pleasures of commodification.

The disgracing of Milli Vanilli didn't return popular music to a golden age of direct communication between artist and fan. I'm not sure I'd want such a relationship, if it ever existed — most rock stars become a lot less interesting when you learn what they're 'really' like. But in demarcating the '90s' boundary line between 'art' and 'image', what THIS DISGRACING may have inadvertently helped usher in is the era of the Supermodel. Cindy, Naomi, Linda and their cohort can't be unmasked as talentless frauds, don't need to sing, dance, or act to be stars. They've given up any claim to creating anything other than images of themselves. Does this mean they produce nothing that can be of any value to their millions of fans? Not according to the most thrilling media phenomenon to come along since Milli Vanilli, RuPaul, who in "Supermodel" asks us to reimagine image-modelling and gender-construction as the archetypical form of postmodern labor: "You'd better work it, girl." You know it's true.

When he's not lip-synching, Ted Friedman is a graduate student in the program in Literature and Literary Theory at Duke University in North Carolina. He also writes for Details and Vibe, and co-moderates the H-AMSTDY Internet discussion group. He can be reached through e-mail at the following Internet address:

Copyright © 1993 by Ted Friedman. All rights reserved.