Jon 2.0

Kill the process

Read my lips

There’s a superb piece in the New York Times today about lip-synching, and how most of today’s pop performers no longer sing live. There were a few particularly gorgeous moments:

One former record executive, who insisted that he not be named, recalled being in the front row for a Janet Jackson performance and seeing her count dance steps with her lips while her singing voice played over the public address system. (Her label, Virgin Records, did not respond to interview requests.)

On television today, some effort is still made to have performances seem live, but it’s often not very convincing. When Casey Spooner of Fischerspooner appeared on the British show “Top of the Pops” with Kylie Minogue, for example, he said he was asked to wear a bogus headset microphone. “There is no microphone,” he said. “She’s wearing, like, a coat hanger with a piece of electrical tape on it.”

If singers are not longer singing, this is because of a point so obvious the story almost neglects to mention it: That the central qualification for succeeding as a major pop performer these days is your ability to dance. When MTV first launched back in the 80s, performers used to bemoan the fact that “only attractive people would be able to make albums”. Ah, what a quaint concern. These days, being drop-dead gorgeous/handsome is a given; but even with that in hand, you’ll never crack pop’s top 40 without being able to gyrate like a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader.

I remember the first time I saw Britney Spears, back in the late 90s when we was first, uh, busting out. She was on Saturday Night Live, and she performed a complex routine with four or five backup dancers. And I remember thinking, man, she looks really nervous — her eyes were glazed over like she couldn’t focus on anything. Then it occurred to me that, of course, she wasn’t nervous about singing badly: She was nervous about dancing badly. A lousy musical performance would be problematic; but a botched dance move would be complete and total career suicide, as the expression of wall-eyed panic on her face clearly illustrated. It kinda makes you think it would be a lot easier on everyone if she and her fans would mutually agree that nobody particularly cares whether or not she can sing live, and just have her smile and wave as she prances around, like one of the Rockettes, or Oxana Baiul.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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