Milli Vanilli, Make Believe and Authenticity (also those braids)

Quick trivia question: What was the highest-selling album to be permanently deleted from a record label’s catalog? Answer: “Girl You Know it’s True” by Milli Vanilli.

Thank you to Mixed Tape Masterpiece for reminding me of Milli Vanilli today.

I’ve always had a certain fascination for the lip-synching 80s pop duo. I was not particularly a fan back in the day, although I did buy one Milli Vanilli 45. “Girl, I’m Gonna Miss You.” (It was popular during a summer when I had known a guy who I subsequently missed. It reminded me of him.)

Milli Vanilli really captured my imagination only after it was revealed that the beautiful young men in the videos had not sung on the records attributed to them. Their tale brought up many of the same questions of fame, impersonation and identity that I wrote about in my novel Identity Theft.

For those of you too young to have experienced this episode, here is the story as I recounted it in my book Schadenfreude, Baby!

I believe what gave people such a sense of Schadenfreude when their musical hoax as exposed was their washboard abs, spandex trousers and quotes like “Musically, we are more talented than Bob Dylan. Musically, we are more talented than Paul McCartney. Mick Jagger, his lines are not clear. He don’t know how he should produce a sound. I’m the new modern rock n’ roll. I’m the new Elvis.” That quote was from the more outspoken Milli, Rob Pilatus who was one of the two front men of Milli Vanilli. (The other was Fabrice “Fab” Morvan.)

Milli Vanilli’s radio-friendly pop sold seven million copies, but it was their “exotically sexy” look, as the New York Times put it, that got them heavy rotation on MTV. Looking at their model-handsome faces, teenaged girls completely overlooked the fact that the guys had German accents when they spoke and urban American accents when they sang. Right from the start the Millis were criticized for their arrogance and were called a triumph of image over substance.

Pilatus told Ebony magazine that such criticism was “depressing and sad. Maybe some are afraid a bit because we have crossover. Other people get jealous.”

Their hit single “Girl You Know It’s True” won the European singers a “Best New Artist” Grammy. Pilatus and Morvan were secretly hoping they would not win because it might shine a light on the fact that they hadn’t sung a note of the music on their hit album.

Rumors were already flying that the boys might not be the most musically ept. A Washington Post review of a Milli Vanilli concert called it a “triumph of technology and imagemaking over talent and originality… while not everything they sang sounded entirely canned, there were moments when the only voices in the hall that didn’t appear to be lip-synched or electronically enhanced came from the squealing, mostly teenage crowd.”

During a “live” performance a few months later, a recording of that very song began to skip and repeated the line “Girl you know it’s…” over and over again. This may have been the last straw. Frank Farian, the German rock producer who had put the look and sound of Milli Vanilli together in a lab, told all. The guys with the faces on MTV took the brunt of the outrage and the jokes.

Milli Vanilli’s five Top Five singles–including three Number Ones—were hastily dropped from radio playlists and are rarely heard on oldies stations today. The album was deleted from Arista’s catalog. A class action suit in the U.S. allowed the consumers of the album to apply for a rebate.

What fascinated me about the whole situation was that people returned the records. Presumably the kids who bought them had liked the music when they heard it. Nothing about the music had changed. The only thing that was different was that the fans now knew that the people who had recorded the music did not look like models. It was the image that was fraudulent, so the fans should really have kept the records and sent back the sleeves. Milli Vanilli provided a rare opportunity to separate out the various aspects of rock stardom, was it the music or the image that meant the most to the fans? Arguably, Milli Vanilli proved it was the image. Without the image, the beautiful boys, the braids, the dancing– the records were deemed worthless.

After the secret was exposed, the two sides of Milli Vanilli, the image and the voices, each recorded their own albums. The vocalists released an album as “The Real Milli Vanilli” and the faces recorded an album under the name Rob and Fab. Neither record was a hit. “The Real Milli Vanilli” lacked the sex appeal and palpable charisma of Rob and Fab. And Rob and Fab? It turns out they were decent enough singers, Fab Morvan in particular has remained determined to have a music career. (He also does not age.) But without the rock star budget and material provided by a big time music producer the Rob and Fab album was doomed to fail.

More important, I think, the public was not ready to forgive the duo for destroying the fantasy and exposing their own unrealistic expectations as an audience. The version of Milli Vanilli that the fans had loved was a powerful fantasy of beauty, perfectly crafted pop music, dancing and celebration. It was a theatrical production created by a team, the way a television team had once created The Monkees by auditioning musicians and actors. That production raised the same types of questions about authenticity. When it was revealed that the TV band had not played the instruments on its first albums it was a minor scandal and the two musicians of the team in particular were determined to record an album that was entirely their own. “Headquarters” was the only record The Monkees made in this fashion, much to the disappointment of Monkee Peter Tork. The fans, it turns out, didn’t care all that much. Modern boy bands aren’t expected to play their own instruments or write the songs. They often record with the help of digital vocal correction and perform concerts using backing tracks.

Pop music has always been about image, fantasy and manufactured identities. But even in this world of make believe it seems there are lines of fact and fiction we do not want crossed or blurred. Milli Vanilli crossed them.

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3 comments

  1. Great post! I never understood the moral outrage. The songs were great, and if everyone who made the music was cool with having a couple handsome guys pretending they were the musicians, no harm done.

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