Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Wednesday, March 30, 2005 at 12:20 PM
The foreign press recently got a chuckle out of a story that ran in the occasional “Ain’t China Funny” category of news shorts. It seems that the Chinese Party Congress, with a host of weighty matters on the table, such as Taiwan independence and foreign trade, was debating a law to make lip-synching in pop songs illegal.
In drawing up a draft of China's first comprehensive law on arts and culture, the Chinese leaders were actually considering a regulation making it a crime for any performer to lip-synch without first notifying the audience.
“Fake singing is no different from trading in fakes,” said Ma Bomin, an official with Shanghai's municipal radio, film and television administration. “It should be resolutely boycotted and shunned.”
Yeah, right, resolutely. The problem is that, just as fakes are now the norm and not the exception in China, so lip-synching is not merely an occasional transgression, but firmly entrenched standard practice. You might as well advocate outlawing make-up and hair dye. Many Chinese pop stars would no more actually sing their songs on TV than Bruce Willis would really jump from an exploding 50-story building in an action scene.
Some will remember the hoopla over Ashlee Simpson’s recent fiasco on Saturday Night Live, when a technical glitch during one of her songs revealed her to be lip-synching. She was panned and ridiculed in the press for the incident, which at least suggests the practice is still rare enough in the US to be considered a scandal. It is hard to imagine such an event in China eliciting more than a few indifferent shrugs.
In fact, lip-synching on Chinese TV is so common that some variety shows don’t even bother with basic live sound-recording equipment. I first became aware of this fact of Chinese musical life when a jazz group of mine was to appear on a Beijing TV variety show in 1997. When we showed up at the studio for the taping, we discovered that there was no microphone for our singer, no recording equipment or hookups for our amplifiers, and not even any electrical outlets on the stage. “How are we supposed to do our number?” I asked the studio crew. They looked at us incredulously. “You actually want to sing the song live?” they said. All the other singers had simply brought along their pre-recorded CDs.
Disgusted by this state of affairs, Cui Jian, the godfather of Chinese rock, has become a lone crusader against the practice of lip-synching. In 2002 he launched a “Live Vocals” campaign, holding press conferences and giving interviews in an effort to make audiences more aware of the problem.
Cui has claimed that 80 percent of the musical acts on CCTV are lip-synched, and 100 percent of the annual Spring Festival Gala is faked. Having taken part in the latter in 1999, I can confirm that Cui’s assessment is basically correct. At one point I overheard a famous singer complaining that it was difficult for her to match her mouth movements exactly to the vocal on the pre-recorded CD, and she even wondered aloud if it might be easier just to sing the song for real.
Perhaps in response to Cui Jian’s criticisms, the Spring Festival show in the Year of the Horse began to require that singers actually sing their songs live on the stage. Audiences had no idea that any change had taken place, but their ears told them something was different. In daily conversations and comments on the radio in the days following the broadcast, one could hear remarks like “How come [so-and-so] was singing so out-of-tune on the show?” or “They must not have rehearsed enough this year. The singers were not up to standard.”
Here’s a dirty little secret, folks. It’s just not that hard to be a pop singer, especially in China. Few people realize how much digital manipulation goes into a CD pop performance, and how little the singers actually have to sing in public once the album is released.
In fact, many Chinese pop singers have songs on their CDs that they quite literally have never sung all the way through from beginning to end, either in the studio or in live performance. If you observe the usual process of creating and recording a pop song, it becomes obvious why this is the case.
First, a song is written and arranged, and a rough Karaoke background version given to the singer to begin working on. (These prima donnas almost never write their own songs.) The singer is usually heavily coached and helped along the way to arrive at some reasonable interpretation of the music. Once the singer has got the basic gist of the piece, the recording phase begins. The vocal track is laid down in the studio line-by-line, if not word-by-word, and the singer can sing each stanza a hundred times until they get it right. They need never sing a complete version, or even bother to memorize the lyrics.
The resulting vocal track is literally just raw material for the producers to manipulate and polish at their leisure. Flaws can be ignored, since these are easily fixed digitally after the recording is finished. Out-of-tune notes can be pitch-adjusted to perfection. Phrases out of rhythm can be stretched, condensed or moved and reinserted on the beat with the same ease that a piece of text can be moved with a word processor. (In fact, the whole process of digital music processing is nearly isomorphic to the use of a word processor. Every aspect of the sound, from the volume, pitch, timbre, duration, intensity, etc. can all be tweaked in minute detail.) The result is that even the most amateurish singer can, with some post-production editing, be made to sound like a respectable professional singer, if not exactly Mariah Carey.
Once the song is finished, the singer takes out of the studio a pristine stereo mixdown, and from then on their only real work is finished. For most TV and live performances, this studio recording will simply be played through the sound system, and the singer will convincingly lip-synch the performance. Many singers can go for months, appearing in all sorts of venues, without ever singing a note. There is a whirlwind publicity blitz, the filming of a music video, and countless promotional appearances, all relying mainly on this canned recording. Having spent a fair amount of time backstage chatting with a variety of up-and-coming Chinese pop stars, I can vouch for the fact that they spend far more time on clothes, hair, interviews and PR than on the mechanics of music making, about which they are often blissfully ignorant. The nuts and bolts of actual music occupies a very small percentage of their fairy-tale lives.
Of course, the very best Chinese pop singers are usually quite musically talented professionals who are not guilty of these extremes of lassitude. Some of the bigger names in the business have the kind of staying power that can only come from true talent and hard work. But for every one of these genuine professionals, there are dozens of tin-eared wannabes with money, good looks, high connections, or just sheer white-hot ambition, who are somehow able to make it onto the airwaves.
I occasionally hear pop singers rationalize the practice of lip-synching. “The sound system at live concerts is never any good,” they complain. “And the so-called sound engineers manning the equipment are just glorified electricians who don’t have any idea how the music is supposed to sound. It would come out awful if we really sang.” Yes, quite true. Even Placido Domingo would sound lousy under such acoustic conditions. But this is really a chicken-or-egg problem. If pop singers were expected to actually use their vocal cords at live events, good quality sound equipment and better engineers would be standard prerequisites.
A more convincing rationalization I often hear involves the physical act of dancing on the stage while singing. “On the fast numbers, I’m up there hopping around all over the place. After a minute or so, I can barely catch my breath. How am I supposed to sing in tune?” Yes, it is hard to warble flawlessly while shaking your booty, and in the post-MTV environment, this theatrical aspect is essential to the music. The booty-shaking can’t be faked. The singing can. But nobody said being a mega pop star was easy. You have to practice, folks. But who wants to go through all this trouble when lip-synching is such an easy option?
Some may recall the pathetic case of Milli Vanilli, a pretty-boy pop duo that was on the charts in the 1980s. The two hunky German guys, Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan had it all: perfect looks, fame and a couple of pop hits. Rob told the press in an interview “We are more talented than Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger… I am the new Elvis.” The problem was, they couldn’t actually sing. The whole act was a studio creation, with two or three other singers actually providing the voice tracks, and unbeknownst to the fans, the duo was lip-synching all their concerts. The promoters and record execs must have broken out in a cold sweat when Rob and Fab were nominated for Grammy awards, but when the guys actually won the Best New Artist award in 1990, the management must have been positively peeing in their pants. The duo’s fakery was kept more-or-less an industry secret, until a glaring record skip during a concert let the cat out of the bag, and Milli Vanilli became a worldwide laughing stock. They were summarily stripped of their Grammy. There were attempts at keeping the act alive as a self-parody, but the joke wore thin. Rob tried to commit suicide. It was a sad, silly little episode for the music industry.
Well, anyway, so what? What did we expect? Isn’t show biz all about artifice, fantasy, illusion? As long as the product looks sexy and makes us feel good, what do we care how it was produced? Does it really bother anyone that Tina Turner is 60 but looks 30? Of course not. So why should we care if there’s a bit of digital enhancement on her aging voice as well? In this day and age, model-like looks and that indefinable commercial je ne sais quoi seem to be far more important than the mere ability to sing on key. As the increasing sophistication of the recording process makes possible a kind of superhuman vocal perfection, perhaps lip-synching is just the next logical step.
So is Cui Jian just being a fuddy-duddy? Actually, I don’t think so. One has to draw the line somewhere. Lip-synching is typical of a sort of creeping synthetic blandness in pop music, which is increasingly dependent upon canned sounds and high-tech post-production cheating. When Ella Fitzgerald sang in the studio, there was no manipulation of the voice, and what you heard was basically a high-quality live performance, timeless proof of Ella’s astounding ear and solid technique. By the time you get to the Beatles, there is already a bit of studio hanky-panky going on, but for Heaven’s sake, those blokes could really sing. Go back and listen to those recordings. They often sound a little sour and out-of-tune by today’s digital standards, but it doesn’t matter: the feeling was there. It was real.
Duke Ellington once said “I don’t ask for perfection; all I ask for is goose pimples.” If Ellington were alive to hear Karaoke and modern robot-flawless vocals, it would probably make his skin crawl. It seems that Chinese pop music, and the global pop world in general, increasingly settles for mere perfection. Give me goose pimples.
- © David Moser 2005
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
Books on China
The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.