Audiences at Britney Spears’ “Circus” concert are complaining that the singer is lip-syncing all of her songs, and not dancing energetically or well enough to justify it.
Toleration for deception doesn’t justify deception. We’ve come a long way since Milli Vanilli: Broadway shows and rock concerts routinely employ some proportion of lip-syncing these days, and today’s audiences, raised on lip-synced TV performances by pop singers and entertained at theme parks where all the perky singers moved their mouths to pre-mixed tapes, happily applaud the ersatz….up to a point. They’ll accept Madonna lip-syncing through a demanding dance number because they know she can perform, and they see that she’s giving everything she has. (Besides, she’s what, 70?) There are limits, however. People don’t like to be lied to, as when Sen. Diane Feinstein announced that four famous musicians were going to play a special composition at President Obama’s Inaugeration, and it was revealed later that what the spectators and TV audience heard was a previously recorded version,sent over the sound-system. People don’t appreciate paying money to see and hear a famous singer perform live when he is only being a ventriloquist dummy for his own recorded voice, either, as when ailing tenor Luciano Pavarotti lip-synched his last public performance. And they really don’t like it when a singer is lip-synching because that’s the only way people will believe she can sing, as when Ashlee Simpson was exposed as a musical fraud on “Saturday Night Live.”
Spears’ lip-synching had elements of all three, it seems. People came to hear what Britney sounds like post-head-shaving, post-Federline, post-breakdown—not what recording she was moving her lips to. They paid their money to hear a performance by the famous pop-princess Britney Spears, not watch her play charades. And, like Simpson, her lip-synching and languid demeanor left some audience members with the impression that she was faking more than the singing…that she really wasn’t up to performing.
Her defenders argue that the lip-syncing is irrelevant. “This show is about an incredible spectacle, which it is,” the tour’s promoter says.
Is that all it’s about? Is it advertised as a giant spectacle with pre-recorded music, or a “concert?” The answer is a concert, defined as musicians playing or singers singing in a public performance. Is it a Britney Spears “concert” if Britney Spears doesn’t sing?
It is, in fact, a lie.
The controversy made me think back to the Tony Awards, which I saw for only a few minute. Those minutes were enough to put my face in what Stephen King likes to call “a rictus of horror,” because I spent them listening to Liza Minnelli, or what is left of her. Her voice was a shocking boozy, cigarette-cooked rasp; she sounded like a cross between Don Corleone and Harvey Fierstein. But there was Liza, belting the song out with brio and verve, sounding like hell but doing her best. It was memorable, it was touching, and it was real. Would it have been “better” if she had lip-synced to Liza, circa 1971? It would have sounded better, yes…heck, cheese-graters on asphalt sound better. (Aside: Britney would sound better if she lip-synced to, say, Christina Aguilara. If you are going to use a fake voice, why not use a good one?) But old Liza using the voice of young Liza would have been a fraud. If a performer is going to give a live performance, she should perform, not pretend to perform.
Britney Shields has had a rough time, and she would not have been my ideal choice for the first target of a backlash against shameless lip-syncing. I hope, however, that this is what is happening. If a pseudo-singer wants to lip-sync her songs, or has to because she’s afraid to let her real voice be heard, let her advertise the show that way. It may be a spectacle, but it’s no concert.