Tonight I was channel surfing and paused at PBS for a disco special. Do you remember the song, “Don’t Rock the Boat?” [Here’s the ‘70’s version from The Hues Corporation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfBwsG8ubFw). Hearing it live, a wave of nostalgia came over me, and I put down my remote to watch.
Soon came “Oh, What a Night!” with four, new Seasons and the original Frankie Valli. The audience was full of happy people of all ages who were singing and disco dancing down memory lane. I jumped up in my living room to copy the Seasons’ dance moves and sing along. Each Season took his turn and sang well, and then it was Frankie’s turn to hit the highest notes. Something was off. First, I noticed that Frankie didn’t breath between phrases. Second, I heard his vocals soar for a couple of beats before he opened his mouth. Despite a performance at odds with the laws of physics, I willfully suspended judgment – until he started talking to someone in the audience while his vocal track did his singing for him. Disgusted, I changed the channel.
Lip-syncing is lying, plain and simple. Not all lies are bad, and neither is all lip-syncing. White lies like the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and telling your friend before he takes the stage that nobody will notice the coffee stain on his white tux don’t hurt anyone. Similarly, there are times when lip-syncing is necessary. It’s right for filming dance sequences (Michael Jackson and David Lee Roth could sing well while moonwalking and jump-kicking, but the majority of mortals cannot), concept-based music videos, or movie scenes when an actress who can’t sing portrays a singer. In these types of situations, we don’t expect and don’t need a live performance; lip-syncing may actually enhance the finished product and our enjoyment.
Lip-syncing is the hurtful kind of lie when an artist deceives the people who spent their hard-earned money or tuned in to hear him or her sing live. I know all the rationalizations that singers can make. They may forget the words. They may not hear their intro. The cold weather can affect their vocal cords. They may be sick, and if they’re like me, they’re always a little nervous, because performing live is singing without a net. That’s what makes it exciting for the audience! Nobody knows exactly what will happen.
It’s this excitement that differentiates live performances from the pre-recorded version. Fans will stand in the cold, the snow, and the rain. They’ll give an artist their love and support for the magic of hearing him or her in concert. When a singer is caught lip-syncing, s/he shatters that magic and trust as surely as did the Wizard of Oz when he revealed himself as an ordinary conman from Omaha, Nebraska.
Singers have every right to be anxious about performing live. It IS risky. Barbra Streisand famously waited 27 years to sing live after forgetting the words to a song during a free concert she gave in Central Park. But in all that time, she didn’t fake a performance. Fans continued to buy her albums and watch her movies, and she stayed true to those fans and to herself.
There's no amount of pressure that justifies lying, cheating or stealing to get what you want, I have turned down performances in situations where I felt I couldn’t deliver. It’s ok to say no. Sooner or later, singers who lip-sync fool only themselves.