On New Year’s Eve, Mariah Carey delivered a performance that ranks up there with every time a teacher called on me in school when I hadn’t done the reading. Namely, she lip-synched, and it wasn’t terrific — despite her self-described good sportsmanship and the refuted claims that Dick Clark Productions sabotaged her.
But most importantly: Who cares? I mean, really. Not about her reaction — because, let’s be real, most of us wouldn’t have made it to the end of the two-song set at all, let alone walked the stage while commenting on the shitstorm, as Mariah did — but about lip-synching itself. Are we really naïve enough to believe that every pop star performs live every time they’re on TV? Or are we just disappointed when the fantasy is ruined?
Debating the truth about lip-synching leads down a treacherous road paved by our own smugness. Last August, Britney Spears came under fire for her apparent lip-synching at the VMAs (despite her long history of lip-synching — as if we didn’t know better), while back in March, Justin Bieber drew similar accusations about his performance at the Billboard Video Awards. Whenever these incidents crop up, there’s usually an implied callback to the two landmark cases in lip-sync controversy history: SNL v. Ashlee Simpson (2004) and Everyone v. Milli Vanilli (1989), both of which ended with the artists’ careers in shambles due to their inability or refusal to sing live. Rarely do lip-sync critics cite Beyoncé, who admitted to lip-synching at Obama’s second inauguration in 2013 in a quickly forgotten teapot/tempest situation. But, of course, not everyone can be Beyoncé.
With every lip-sync reveal, we seem to revel in our ability to detect bullshit when it suits us. When Justin Bieber was at the top of his teen-idol game in 2012, we delighted in footage of his vocal track continuing as he threw up onstage. This past summer, 60,000 Belgian fans booed Rihanna when she showed up late and lip-synched through her festival set list. The self-righteousness was real, albeit temporary.
The rule seems to be that lip-synching is fine, provided we’re in on the act. When Britney performs in Vegas, we’re seeing her on her own terms and in her own house, so the knee-jerk reaction to lip-synching is generally absent. But when she performs at a major awards show, somehow certain people expect to watch her earn our praise. Just like they want Justin Bieber to prove he’s still worth our love post–death spiral — and, most recently, they want Mariah to prove she’s suitable for winter holidays other than Christmas. As if she (or any artist) actually owes us anything.
When we crucify artists for lip-synching, we create an imbalance of power, especially since when we go to big pop concerts, we’re mostly paying to be in the same room as our heroes, not to hear perfectly duplicated live versions of highly produced songs they have no hope of recreating while also demonstrating extensive choreography. Our favorite pop songs aren’t recorded on live stages in arenas while mastering dance steps; they’re created in studios that exist to make everybody sound spectacular. Not every artist is Adele or Celine Dion, whose voice is their signature. Some artists are doing exactly what we demanded from them — like keeping the show going despite puking onstage.
That’s why, ultimately, Mariah’s New Year’s moment will be forgotten soon. Like Beyoncé circa 2013, Mariah’s myth outweighs any need to cater to our delusional expectations. She's bigger than needing to prove herself — she's done it already. Mariah Carey has been a diva for more than two decades, so one could argue that we were #blessed to watch her say “shit happens” while walking around a stage on New Year’s Eve. She’s lasted longer in the industry than any of us ever could. She earned it.
Getting judgy when pop stars lip-synch is a worse look than lip-synching itself. Do we really expect near-perfect performances from singers on a grueling tour schedule? Is it that impossible to believe that backing tracks can actually help the live experience? Are we really so affected by the realization that some artists need a lift to give us the caliber of shows we’ve come to expect?
Or are we just that desperate to make ourselves feel superior?