IS IT BETTER for a pop star to look good than to sound good? In the age of MTV, it certainly can't hurt -- as 7 million Milli Vanilli fans found out.
But fans of Rob and Fab, the pretty boy dancers who fronted as Milli Vanilli, are not alone in discovering their chart-climbing stars have more in common with the Wizard of Oz than with Prince.
The voices behind Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam" and Blackbox's "Everybody Everybody" are not necessarily the tall, luscious models featured on album covers and videos; they are two less videogenic women behind the scenes.
"Welcome to the modern pop jungle, where big or butch women don't satisfy MTV's lust," the Village Voice said recently in a piece on the lip-synch flap.
The question is not limited to who's singing on the record; there's also the question of who's singing on stage. The use of taped music and vocals in live performances is rumored for many artists, including Madonna and New Kids on the Block.
"Certainly, in this video generation of the past 10 years, having a band or an artist with THE look is critically important," acknowledged Abbey Konowitch, MTV's senior vice president. "It doesn't have to be good-looking -- but it has to be a look."
Such talk annoys veteran rocker Graham Nash, who's combined with David Crosby and Stephen Stills to provide some of the finest vocal harmonies ever recorded.
"It's totally preposterous. If you can't cut it, don't do it," Nash said of the seen-but-not-heard bands. "Lip-synching might be OK at the Ice Capades, when you're doing the march of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but not at a rock 'n' roll show."
The importance of appearance in pop music is nothing new. The Beatles arrived in the United States with matching haircuts and wardrobe 26 years ago; the Sex Pistols arrived a generation later with clothes to match their attitudes.
But the MTV generation has placed a new emphasis on looks. The diminutive, baseball-capped Ya Kid K -- the voice of Technotronic's "Pump Up The Jam" -- was replaced in the video by lanky model Felly.
Martha Wash, who says she is the voice on Blackbox's hit single "Everybody Everybody," instead saw 6-foot model Katrin Quinol on the cover of the 12-inch single.
"We have been told Katrin is part of the group, but in no way was she the only female voice," said Marilyn Lipsius, a BMG Records spokeswoman. "Martha definitely sang on it, and nobody ever denied that."
The Vanillis were lean, mean dancing machines. Wash, on the other hand, was one-half of Two Tons of Fun, the hefty backup singers for the late Sylvester and a successful duet as the Weather Girls.
"America is about pretty surfaces," says music publicist Bill Adler. "If it were simply about musical talent, Bo Diddley would be a lot bigger than Elvis."
Things have been popping since the Millis were exposed and stripped of their Grammy. Copies of their records were destroyed; lawsuits alleging fraud have been filed by fans in California and Chicago; lawmakers in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Michigan are considering legislation over live performance lip-synching.
Yet producer Frank Farian, the mastermind behind the fabulous faker boys, offered no apologies. And neither did their record company.
"It was a wonderful act. Fans loved the music. Everybody was happy," Farian said before the split hit their fans.
The Millis were particularly criticized for lyp-synching live, but they don't stand alone. High-energy, choreographed shows by Janet Jackson or the New Kids on the Block leave the singers gasping for air; several such acts are rumored to enhance their shows with prerecorded sound.
Nash says CSN's chances of making it big in today's music business would be slim -- unlike his hefty singing partner Crosby. "Crosby has style? Well, a certain style, for sure, but not stacked boots and all that," he said laughing.
"I'm not sure how artists from the past would fare," said Adler. "I mean, Bob Dylan's videos are kind of lame, even though he's electrifying in person."