The dark side of digital music

Those who tuned into last weekend's Saturday Night Live on NBC had the opportunity to catch Ashlee Simpson with her pants down. No, not literally (though that might have been a better career move). In what may have been her swan song, Ms. Simpson stood in front of god and country as her voice blared out across the set with her mouth closed and her microphone at her side.


According to an anonymous Saturday Night Live source, this isn't the first time a performer has been aided by a "guide" track -- a track that can be used to either fill out a performer's vocal or allow the singer to save wear and tear on their voice by mouthing along to the track. Ms. Simpson's voice coach has suggested that the performer's voice was worn out after rehearsals and they chose the latter course to protect her pipes -- Ashlee would lip-sync. Regrettably, evidence of this deception was exposed when someone cued up the wrong song and young Simpson was unprepared for what came out of her monitors.

Amusing as it may be to see such fakery exposed, my hope is that this event will have a greater effect than simply ending Ashlee Simpson's career. Increasingly technology has made it possible for weak vocal performances to be improved beyond all recognition in the studio and for performers to utter nary a single syllable while performing "live."

Using technology in one form or another to "cheat" has been part of the musical landscape for decades. In the early days of recording, vocalists were placed in reverberant rooms to fill out their voices. Later, these rooms were replaced by electronic devices that recreated these cavernous environments. When multi-track tape recorders came along, vocalists double-tracked their voices to fill them out. Today, sophisticated pitch correction devices and plug-ins are used to pull errant vocals into line.

And lip-syncing is hardly new. Any movie musical you've seen features performers lip-syncing over their pre-recorded tracks (and in the case of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, over someone else's pre-recorded track). American Bandstand was famous for showing "live" performances from bands whose electric guitars and keyboards appeared to work without being plugged into amplifiers. Yet in these American Bandstand years, Ed Sullivan showcased some of these same bands and demanded that each one actually play and sing their songs -- no lip-syncing allowed. Sullivan and CBS seemed to feel that their audience deserved more than the band of the week aping their record.

Perhaps it's time we revisited those standards.

While it's easy to point fingers at Ashlee Simpson and her management team, the folks at Saturday Night Live bear a lot of the responsibility for allowing performers on the show who can't actually perform. If the show's standards are intended to mimic those of American Bandstand, say so. If not, make it clear to the musical guests that they're there to do the job for which they've been so wonderfully compensated -- sing and play your damned instrument.

Likewise, when the latest Madonna/Brittney Spears/Janet Jackson/Hillary Duff/Whoever Legion of a Thousand Dancers Extravaganza rolls into town, the back of the US$80 ticket might bear these words "This performance is enhanced with pre-recorded material. The performers will be far too breathless from gyrating across the stage to actually sing."

"But, but, but..." I can imagine the music machine sputtering, "how can we keep parading a steady supply of impossibly beautiful talent before the public if that talent has to simultaneously pose, preen, dance, and sing? Something's got to give!"

I agree. Something's got to give. As I recall, Janis Joplin was no beauty queen and Aretha Franklin did little more than sway when she sang. These performers used the technology of the day to enhance their recordings, but when it came time to deliver -- sing with every ounce of their souls -- they did it honestly, risking bad notes and a trashed voice.

Offering anything less is shameful.

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Christopher Breen

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