One of the simultaneously best and worst things to come out of the late 1980s/early '90s was this photo of Nancy Reagan sitting on Mr. T's lap. These days an entire reality show would be made out of such an epic photo op. But the runner-up would have to be Milli Vanilli's entire career arc, which boils down to this, for those of you unfamiliar with Milli Vanilli.
German music producer Frank Farian dreamed of a male dance-pop act that'd dominate U.S. charts. Enter German model/ dancers Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus. They couldn't sing (more on that in a bit!), but had the good stuff ladies went for those days -- Spandex bike shorts, braids, and combat boots. (Sort of steampunk, if you think about it, but that's where the similarities end).
The group called themselves Milli Vanilli, released their album, All or Nothing in Europe in 1988 but repackaged it as Girl You Know It's True for its 1989 U.S. release. Turns out, the U.S. was starved for crap (and fake crap, too! -- again, more on a that in a sec) as Milli Vanilli enjoyed three #1 hits -- "I'm Gonna Miss You," "Baby Don't Forget My Number," and "Blame It on the Rain" -- off of that album, which went platinum six times -- numbers practically unheard of these days. Then, Milli Vanilli won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in February 1990!
BUT, not everything was as it seemed in Vanilliville. During a 1989 MTV performance at Lake Compounce amusement park in Bristol, Connecticut, a funny thing happened while Milli and Vanilli were performing "Girl You Know It's True." The track jammed, skipped and began to repeat "Girl, you know it's…" over and over again, as the story goes. Partially phased, Rob and Fab continued to keep up appearances but then ran offstage. Apparently concertgoers carried on as if nothing weird or unnatural had just happened, but a few astute brainiacs took note, though amazingly it'd take A YEAR for the Milli Vanilli empire to come crumbling down. These days it'd take seconds. (Thanks, Twitter!)
On November 15, 1990, Frank Farian let the cat out of the bag and revealed that neither Rob nor Fab nor Milli nor Vanilli sang any of the songs on Girl You Know It's True. Even the track order on the U.S. release didn't match up to listing printed on its cover art, and a couple tracks are listed with the wrong time codes. (Triple fail!) Clearly, quality control was not in Milli Vanilli's favor. Milli Vanilli's Grammy was revoked in November 1990 (ends up Grammy gets all nitpicky over that sorta stuff!) but, interestingly, not their American Music Awards. (What does THAT tell you? Aim for AMA!) Arista Records booted them from their roster, and 26 different lawsuits were filed against them.
Milli Vanilli's story ended tragically: Rob Pilatus died of a drug overdose in 1998, and Girl You Know It's True became the largest-selling album to ever be taken out of print.
The video below is a vintage video of Milli Vanilli performing on Club MTV in 1989, before Milli Vanilli became an American punchline -- and by the way, since there was no Internet back then, that punchline lasted a lot longer than memes do today. A lot longer. But, you could also argue that Milli Vanilli were a victim of circumstance -- they started out broke and took the bait when they were promised stardom, which came with an unexpectedly high cost. Still, those guys had unbelievable abs and major swagger, and, above all else, you can always argue that it's better to be remembered for something than never to be remembered at all.
Watch Milli Vanilli's 1989 Club MTV performance, and watch more vintage MTV videos here.
+ Plus: After the jump, watch Madina Lake discuss lipsynching to Milli Vanilli.