Milli Vanilli

Milli Vanilli. The mere mention of the name still calls up the same derision it did when the dance-pop duo's career came to a sudden and ignominious end: Fakers. Frauds. A blatant marketing scam. Their story has been retold countless times: after selling millions of records, Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan were revealed to be models who publicly lip-synced to tracks recorded by anonymous studio vocalists. They became the first act ever stripped of a Grammy award and came to symbolize everything people disliked about dance-pop: it was so faceless that every musician involved could remain anonymous without anyone knowing the difference, so mechanical and artificial that the people who constructed it had to hire models to give it any human appeal, so pandering and superficial that people bought it just for its attachment to a pretty face. Whether that assessment was fair or not, it was beyond easy to hold Milli Vanilli in contempt. Yet for all the scapegoating, they were far from the only dance-pop act to be fronted by lip-syncers in the late '80s (the Martha Wash-voiced Black Box and C+C Music Factory spring to mind), nor were they the only Europop act to employ similar marketing tactics. (They were simply the most successful and visible, since their incorporation of rap made them more appealing to Americans.) What's more, pop music had a long tradition of hits recorded by anonymous studio musicians, dating back to '50s instrumental combos and '60s bubblegum. Milli Vanilli had the bad luck to get caught in a hoax during the extraordinarily image-conscious MTV era and a time when dance music of any stripe was accorded virtually no critical respect anyway, before its producers were perceived as the real creative points of focus. It's not as though Milli Vanilli were acclaimed for their honesty of expression before the scandal broke; it's more likely that what fueled the backlash was public resentment over Rob and Fab's celebrity (why should they be famous if they couldn't sing?) and embarrassment over the fact that Milli Vanilli's marketing had worked like a charm on everyone right up through the Grammy committee.