Why do singers lip sync? Lip syncing helps singers compensate for technical challenges, allow for showmanship, and manage time constraints.
Lip synchronization, or simply lip sync, needs no explanation; we’ve seen it and we’ve done it, for sure. How many of us have mouthed the highest notes of an Aerosmith song, or pretended to be Adele in a shower concert while Rolling in the Deep blasts in the background?
Lip syncing is fun. We, mere mortals, are not recording superstars like Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, and many other exalted singers of the past and present generations. Yet, lots of these vocal artists are guilty of lip syncing on some occasions! And when it happens, it becomes a hot topic that can linger for days or weeks, until the controversy dies a natural death.
Why are professional singers put in a bad light when they lip sync? Why do they lip sync, anyway? And is it such a criminal thing to do?
Some Times, Lip Syncing is Necessary
At some point during their performances, it is necessary for singers to lip sync. And no, we don’t mean it’s necessary because the singer might go out of tune while singing a particularly challenging piece, or anything like that (although it’s also a plausible ground). There are bigger reasons why singers need to give their vocal pipes some downtime and just go on mouth-miming mode.
Actually, we just gave one of the reasons in the previous sentence. Many singers opt to go the lip sync route to give their vocal cords a chance to rest and recover. This is the most common of all reasons. And this is not sacrilege; it’s common sense.
As for the other reasons:
● Technical challenges
Sometimes, the venue and circumstances just won’t cooperate.
It could be the ambient noise (wind, traffic, sudden heavy rains, etc.) or the noisy crowd. It could be the lack of support or accommodation for backup bands or special sound systems.
There are situations when live vocal performances can’t cut it, and the only way to go is to lip sync.
● Allow showmanship
This is especially true for songs where the artist is also expected to carry out elaborate or energetic choreography as they sing. More often than not, singing and dancing is a tough combination; try running for three minutes and then do jumping jacks while singing the rock part of Bohemian Rhapsody.
Lip syncing allows the artist to put on nice stage performance to pump up the crowd.
● Time constraint
Sometimes, an artist is only given a specific amount of time to perform. Especially in television, where time is money and show producers want to make sure they give premium air time for advertisements. Lip syncing is a foolproof method for singers to stick to their given time frame.
● Audience expectations
Some audiences may have this expectation of hearing in live performance what they hear on the album. They don’t want any changes or fluctuations; they want that familiar tone and texture.
Or perhaps, the song may be a hit decades back and the singer’s voice has changed a lot. The singer no longer has the same voice quality, and thus, can no longer sing the song in the same way.
● Singer is not feeling well
They may be seen as microphone-wielding gods and goddesses of the stage, but the reality is that singers are humans, too. And they do get sick sometimes.
But being professionals, they understand that they still must perform. They can’t fail their people, and they can’t fail their fans!
Lip syncing is only a humane thing to do in this regard. It is less draining for them and at the same time, protects their voice from strain.
Is It Wrong for Them to Lip Sync?
When someone paid for something and it didn’t meet his expectations, he would naturally feel cheated. And then, he will want his money back.
This is how others feel about artists lip syncing during what is supposedly a live performance. For them, it’s a deceptive practice and should be illegal.
However, justifiable reasons have already been outlined above; in the end, producers and artists only want to give their supporters the best entertainment, and it means the best sound and the best look. If you hear huffing and puffing every five minutes, if the voice you hear is obviously not in the best condition to sing, you would demand your money back!
With all the intricacies involved in putting up a live performance, lip syncing to some songs is a sensible option. As long as it is done for the right reasons, lip syncing is not entirely wrong.
Notable Lip Sync Scandals
On the topic of lip sync, it’s hard to pass up the chance of discussing the famous lip sync scandals in the history of music. And what better way to start than with this charismatic R&B duo that rocked the music world, Milli Vanilli.
The fake singing fiasco happened in 1989, during a Club MTV live gig where they performed the song “Girl You Know It’s True”. The recording skipped and got stuck playing the line Girl, you know it’s… repeatedly.
Stumped and embarrassed, Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan fled from the stage.
Even before the debacle, suspicions about their having ghost singers had long been circulating. Blame it on their less-than-great English language skills and thick accents, which suddenly seem to change whenever they sing.
Or maybe, blame it on the rain…
And that was, as Pilatus put it during an interview, “the beginning of the end for Milli Vanilli.” Later on, one of the real voices behind their songs came forward, and their manager confirmed his claim; clearly, Milli Vanilli was a case of deception.
A fraud. A hoax.
What followed was a messy episode of album and ticket purchase refunds and Grammy award revocation. And so it goes without saying that their career started as a sweet dream and ended up as a nightmare.
Well, for a singer to get caught lip syncing must be truly a thing of nightmares. And many have suffered the terrible experience.
In high-profile events such as inaugurations and national sports activities, many singers have been caught lip syncing to The Star-Spangled Banner or even their own hits. Among the big-name artists who lip synced the National Anthem in the Super Bowl are Whitney Houston, Vanessa Williams, and Jennifer Hudson.
Beyonce had her share of lip sync scandal, as well. During the 2013 inauguration of Barack Obama, Queen Bey was caught faking singing, to which she admitted later on.
Mariah Carey, who adamantly denied lip syncing on many occasions, was caught a la flagrante delicto during Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 2016. While performing, the songstress was noticeably not in sync with the pre-recorded song. She then cracked a joke about failing to check the sound before the performance, which only added insult to the injury.
Popstars Britney Spears and Victoria Beckham (of the now-defunct British girl group Spice Girls) were also known to lip sync at the height of their careers.
Performing nearly every day, Britney’s manager said it’s impossible for her to keep singing for 90 minutes straight while doing physically demanding dance routines. Thus, they resorted to lip syncing some of her songs instead.
Victoria Beckham admitted to lip syncing as per the concert producer’s instructions. During their performances, all the girls’ microphones were on except for hers, and she had to pretend to be singing most of the time during their concerts.
There are many other incidents of lip sync mishaps; some just didn’t make it on the headlines.
Here’s a video that explains how you can tell when a singer is lip syncing:
A Lesson on Endurance, Redemption, and Tolerance: Final Thoughts
Rob Pilatus, the other half of Milli Vanilli, succumbed to alcoholism and drug addiction and had multiple suicide attempts after their downfall. In 1998, he was found dead in a hotel in Frankfurt, his system flooded with dangerous cocktail of alcohol and prescription pills.
For Fab Morvan, it can’t just end like that. For him, music is life and it has the power to heal. Around that time, Fab and Rob had just finished recording a comeback album featuring their actual singing voices. The album release was canceled, but Rob set out to continue the saga; he sang and performed live, and he found redemption. He forgave their record producer who was the brains behind the deceitful singing arrangement. He recorded and produced music, and he still does until now.
Victoria was once deemed to be just a pretty face in the group; she can’t be expected to be as musically talented as the other members. But she couldn’t care less about what they said; she was only in the group for fashion, as she loves dressing up! This is reflected by her nickname Posh Spice – the stylish and fashion-forward one in the group. She’s not really after popstar fame. She knew that joining the group is a great springboard for her to become what she really wanted to be. And now, she is a fashion mogul!
As for the Super Bowl lip sync controversies, it turned out that the sporting committee prefers all performers to pre-record their vocals, including for the half-time shows. Show producers don’t want to deal with too many variables that a live singing number would bring.
Britney, Beyonce, Mariah, and others bounced back from the fall, too. They accepted the reality of the situation, forgave themselves, and allowed themselves another chance.
According to The Village Voice, “The main thing driving the demand for live singing seems to be pure cynicism that performers are frauds trying to dupe us… Part of the beauty of a live performance is the suspension of that cynicism, the willingness to be entertained. And that, entertainment, is the job of a pop star.”
A little tolerance won’t hurt. It can even be beautiful.
Joyce Ann graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies at New Era University. She especially enjoyed her journalism class and was nominated for Photojournalist of the Year. Joyce Anne loves music; she is a self-taught piano player. When she's not writing (or baking or watching documentaries), she's probably playing songs on the piano, mostly by ear.