It had to happen, eventually. Someone had to get caught with their hand in the lip-syncing cookie jar.
Turns out, that someone is Ashlee Simpson. The rapidly exploding teen pop sensation sent shock waves through the entertainment world last week when she was caught on stage during television's "Saturday Night Live" giving what turned out to be a not-so-live performance. A production glitch found Simpson running off stage while her voice was projected into the studio.
In truth, music fans might be surprised to learn just how common live performance enhancement is in the world of popular music.
"The most shocking thing about all of this is that people find it at all shocking," says Spin Associate Editor Caryn Ganz. "I mean, what did people expect? This isn't exactly a new development."
Ganz cuts to the heart of the matter. Should anyone really be surprised by the Simpson live-TV debacle? Hasn't it been obvious all along that certain pop stars are, um, enhancing their live performances?
Well, yes and no. Pop music, ever since it became a recordable, commodified entity, has been less about capturing and fully representing live performance, more about creating the illusion of spontaneous perfection. Few artists record live in the studio today, and for pop stars, the recording process -- aided and abetted by new digital recording systems such as Pro Tools, which, allow for the assembly of a recording in bits and pieces, a radio-friendly product airbrushed like a Playboy model being the desired end result -- has become a sort of collage art, an idiom that has nothing to do with musical interplay between musicians.
Technology has affected rock music, as well. Since the mid-60s, when artists like the Beatles and Beach Boys began employing the recording studio as a musical instrument, and the concept of multiple overdubbing became the norm, one needn't have expected that the record they were listening to was a document of an actual performance in real time.
Rap and hip-hop? No problem there; since the beginning, the forms have revolved around a live rapper or vocalist cutting atop a prerecorded track. Go see a rap artist, and it's extremely unlikely you'll see any musicians on stage. Rather a DJ spins records while the emcee does his or her thing.
So why all this fuss over poor little Ashlee Simpson?
"I think it's unfair to lay all of this at her doorstep," says Ganz. "She's not doing anything countless other pop stars haven't done. She just happened to get caught doing it on live television."
Or is it Memorex?
There are several different ways that singers can "cheat" during live performance.
"Guide vocals" are one method, whereby a singer croons along to a backing tape, which is mixed with their live vocal at varying volumes, depending on just how lousy a singer they actually are. Guide vocals help with pitch concerns; they also fatten the sound of the voice, particularly when run through a digital harmonizer.
A "pitch-control device" is a piece of digital gear that a microphone signal is run through in order to "push" the note toward its proper pitch. There are very few records being released that don't employ this device today. Many artists use it in concert as well, from Ozzy Osbourne and Jon Bon Jovi, to Britney Spears and Ashlee Simpson.
"Lip-syncing" is the process whereby an artist pretends to sing, mouthing the lyrics while a backing tape does the actual work.
All of the above are far more common than one might realize.
Rock bands are no strangers to the enhancement process either. Many employ pitch-correction devices, vocal harmonizers and sequencers throughout their performances. U2, for example, uses sequencers to reproduce keyboard parts. Canadian trio Rush uses sequencers and harmonizers consistently throughout its live show. And during a stop in HSBC Arena during its last tour, Bon Jovi was clearly getting some help in the vocal department.
Is there a qualitative difference between using technology in order to strengthen a performance and relying on the technology itself as the performance?
"Clearly," says Ganz. "I mean, I don't think these bands you've mentioned are necessarily trying to hide anything. They are just trying to to offer a performance that's true to the original recording for their fans. That's a lot different than pretending to sing, while you're actually doing no such thing."
Alex Lifeson, guitarist with Rush, commented on his band's use of technology prior to this summer's Rush date at Six Flags Darien Lake.
"We've employed technology because, in order to reproduce what we do in the studio in a live context, in a way that's satisfactory to us and, we think, to the audience, we've had to. We're a three-piece band with only so many pairs of hands. But we've done it in a way that is consistent with our artistic standards. Technology is as good as the people who use it, and the way that it's used. We certainly aren't trying to hide anything."
Rich Robinson, guitarist with the Black Crowes, a band known for its wholly organic, smoke-and-mirrors-free live performances, thinks the pop-diva enhancement process has gone a bit too far.
"I think this is all completely out of hand. There's a point where it just isn't music anymore. I mean, is this the best people can do?"
Does it matter?
The real question may not be so much one of the ongoing dichotomy between art and entertainment, integrity vs. utility; maybe all that matters is whether or not the fans really care if what they're hearing is actually live.
"I don't think an Ashlee Simpson fan is going to care all that much," says Ganz. "They just want to hear the songs, and they want them to sound like the CD."
Earlier this week, inside Borders Books & Music, a teenager listened to Simpson's disc on one of the store's listening posts. Had she heard about the Simpson "SNL" incident? And did it change her opinion of the artist?
"Not really," she said. "I still like her."