Great moments in lip-synching: Whitney Houston, Nirvana & more
There’s a silver lining to yesterday’s whole Beyoncé lip-synching debacle: If Bey did, in fact, mouth the words to the national anthem at Monday’s inauguration, at least she’s in good company.
As Jennifer Lopez noted on The Daily Show last night, basically every major musician has relied on pre-recorded tracks at some point — even giants like The Beatles, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston. (Not to mention lesser beings like Ashlee Simpson and Milli Vanilli.) So in honor of the earpiece-removal that scandalized a nation, let’s look back at some of music history’s most memorable lip-synching moments — both famous and infamous.
The Beatles, 1963
Lip-synching — or “miming” — was de rigueur on mid-century pop music showcases like American Bandstand and Britain’s Top of the Pops. Even the Fab Four got in on the act when they played those sorts of shows, as in this 1963 performance of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on Thank Your Lucky Stars. The handclaps coming from nowhere are a nice touch.
The Smiths, 1983
Of course, not every musician who appeared on those showcases was happy about being forced to lip-sync. In 1983, Morrissey showed how much he resented Top of the Pops‘s miming policy by petulantly carrying a bouquet of gladioli instead of a microphone during a performance of “This Charming Man.” Nirvana would pull a similar stunt on the same show in 1991, though under slightly different circumstances — as the rest of the band fooled around with their instruments, plainly not playing them, Kurt Cobain delivered a bizarre, live-sung version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
NEXT PAGE: Even the King of Pop (and Queen) do it
Michael Jackson, 1983
Yes, Michael’s super-star-making performance of “Billie Jean” at Motown’s 25th anniversary concert was lip-synched. But when the King of Pop is debuting history’s very first moonwalk, who cares that the vocals sound just like the track on Thriller?
God bless Freddie Mercury for turning lip-synching into performance art. The microphone is nowhere near the singer’s face during the bulk of this performance of “Radio Ga Ga” — but even so, you can’t tear your eyes away from him.
NEXT PAGE: Girl, you know it’s true … that we’re not really singing
Milli Vanilli, 1989
And then came Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, a cautionary tale for a generation of young musicians. The problem with this duo wasn’t that they were lip-synching, per se — it was that they were lip-synching to tracks they hadn’t actually recorded in the first place. While this embarrassing incident at a concert in Connecticut wasn’t enough to keep the group from winning a Best New Artist Grammy the following year, the truth about Morvan and Pilatus’s vocals soon came out — resulting in a disgraceful scandal that destroyed both performers’ careers.
“To me, all the grumbling about whether people are singing live or not I think was started by live musicians who are out of work,” Madge told MTV’s Kurt Loder in 1991. In the interview, she freely admitted to lip-synching during her groundbreaking Blond Ambition Tour — saying that she cared more about creating theatrical spectacles than singing live. Clips from the concert make it seem like she succeeded on that front.
NEXT: Whitney and the “sorry I lip-synched” jig heard ’round the world
Whitney Houston, 1991
Oh say, did you know that Whitney’s iconic “Star-Spangled Banner” — widely considered the best rendition of the national anthem ever recorded — wasn’t performed live? It’s true: After the star died last year, Rickey Minor confirmed to ABC News that Houston’s Super Bowl vocals were pre-recorded. Whatever; she still belts “AND THE ROCKETS’ RED GLAAAARE” better than anyone before or since.
Ashlee Simpson, 2004
On a Saturday, we were waiting for Simpson to perform her song “Autobiography” in SNL‘s Studio 8H. But a track of “Pieces of Me” started playing instead — confirming that Simpson had lip-synched earlier, and forcing the singer to try to ease the awkwardness by doing an embarrassed jig. She’d later claim that a bout with acid reflux disease had caused her to lose her voice, necessitating the use of a pre-recorded track.
NEXT: Opera singers, rappers and Idols join the club
Luciano Pavarotti, 2006
Even opera stars rely on backup tracks sometimes. Conductor Leone Magiera revealed to the New York Times in 2008 that the renowned tenor mouthed the words to a pre-recorded version of “Nessun Dorma” at the Turin Olympics; the cold weather and Pavarotti’s bad health made singing live “too dangerous.” In any case, Mr. Pavarotti, bravo.
50 cent, 2007
Things to do when the wrong track starts playing during your BET Awards performance: Smile and try to make the best of it. Things not to do: Yell “what the f—,” wander aimlessly through the audience, and end the truncated number with a plug for Vitamin Water. G-u-NIT!
Jennifer Hudson, 2009
If Whitney can do it, so can J. Hud. The Oscar winner lip-synched at theSuper Bowl that year — as did Faith Hill, who performed “America the Beautiful” before Hudson took the field for the national anthem. Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band also mimed playing their instruments during the game’s halftime show, though Springsteen appears to have performed his vocals live.
Why all the lip-synching? It was done at the request of our old pal Rickey Minor, who didn’t want to take any chances while producing the pregame show: “There’s too many variables to go live,” he told ABC News. “I would never recommend any artist go live because the slightest glitch would devastate the performance.”