Back in the late 1980s, when the world almost trusted Germany again, record producer Frank Farian discovered model/dancers Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan in a Munich nightclub and decided to have them front his band Milli Vanilli.
Farian believed the actual singers on what became the “Girl You Know It’s True” album (a title that would prove to have certain dramatic irony) were not marketable. However, it’s hard to imagine them proving more of a laughingstock than Rob and Fab, who were ridiculed frequently for their curious dance moves and Whoopi Goldberg fright wigs.
Milli Vanilli won the 1990 Best New Artist Grammy, which was later revoked when it was revealed that the duo was a fraud. That always seemed curious to me because the actual music was legitimate. Why not give the Grammy to the poor schmuck singing for them?
Later that year, George Michael embraced the Milli Vanilli concept in his “Freedom ’90” video but this was the polar extreme of vanity. Michael was so attractive he felt burdened by it and refused to appear in the videos for his “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1” album so that his music could stand on its own. The debut single, “Praying for Time,” was just white lyrics against a black background. I guess they decided to jazz things up for the follow-up.
Eddie Murphy in “Delirious” commented that all you had to do was “sing” but the MTV Generation had ensured that vocal talent alone was not sufficient if you had a face for radio rather than video. Live performances were now just extensions of the music video.
One of my favorite singers is Martha Wash, who had a memorable hit in the early 1980s — “It’s Raining Men” — as one half of The Weather Girls. The song has been covered multiple times but never equaled.
By the 1990s, the marketing geniuses also declared her appearance unacceptable. They were idiots for several reasons: One, Wash is a beautiful woman, but I concede that all that is subjective. However, the “marketable image” position implies that only heterosexual men are buying the records or watching the videos. Maybe people who look like Wash would appreciate seeing someone similar to themselves in a video rather than a model mindlessly voguing while mouthing the words. Unfortunately, C+C Music Factory went with the latter option when it released its video for 1990’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).”
Wash sued to receive proper credit in the video. She later sued Black Box for pulling the same racket on the three songs for which she provided lead vocals — “Everybody Everybody” (I’ve left instructions for the song to be played at my funeral),”Strike It Up,” and “I Don’t Know Anybody Else.” Wash’s actions had a permanent impact on the industry, making it mandatory to properly identify the vocalists in a CD and video.
Burned so badly by all of this, I at first thought Sheryl Crow was a fraud when I saw her “All I Wanna Do” video in 1994. She seemed too cover girl attractive than the girl next door I envisioned in my head when listening to the song on the radio.
In some ways, the Milli Vanilli/Martha Wash controversies were a more innocent time when a record company wouldn’t dare simply present attractive but untalented performers and expect a gullible audience to willingly pay money for their awful music. The industry would soon get over that as evidenced by the careers of The Spice Girls and Britney Spears.
The Grammys had no problem giving Spears an award in 2005. Incidentally, I think the reason the audience is applauding in the above clip is because that’s the only way Spears would release their families.