Why Do Artists Lip Sync? Should It Be Acceptable?

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Lip sync (short for lip synchronization) is not a necessarily bad production vehicle for musicians, especially those who integrate a lot of movement into their live performances.

However, many fans question the value of these practices when they pay top dollar for concerts and live shows. They sometimes even feel cheated. 

Music artists lip-sync to bring physically demanding performances to life, to perform despite having limited sound reinforcement at a venue or time constraints, to help save strain on their voices, and more often than not, to ensure that their audience gets the best performance possible.

When we’re discussing whether or not lip-syncing is acceptable in musical entertainment, it is important to consider that there are different styles of viewership and performance that go along with it. It shouldn’t be discredited completely, not even in music. Also, one can argue that we (the audience) are to blame for singers’ lipsyncing to begin with. Stay with me, and I will explain.  

Lip-Syncing 101

In the music industry, singers often use lip-syncing for their television, music video, and film appearances. I mean, it’s basically miming their own song. Lip syncing is extremely popular on TikTok. It’s common in drag shows, where the real performance is not the singing, rather the dancing and mimicry. We even have a very entertaining show based on celebrities lip-syncing to famous songs called Lip Sync Battle.  

Used in movies and music videos, where the performers are not always present in every shot and there have to be multiple takes made and it’s understood that a lot of editing is happening in the background, lip-syncing is acceptable to almost everyone watching.

But sometimes, this method is also used for live performances. And therein lies the real controversy. 

Most listeners don’t mind if their music has been autotuned or adjusted via a sound engineer in the studio. They don’t mind if their performers prefer to use pre-dubbed recordings for when they appear on television or in music videos, because those are performances that have to be captured and played back. They will be edited anyway.

What many fans have stated about lip-syncing during a live performance is that they paid to hear a singer or band unfiltered and pure. If the artist lip-syncs the live performance, many audience members feel cheated. 

But are they being cheated? Let’s take a look at why lip-syncing is used in live performances. 

Mistakes and Misunderstandings of Lip-Syncing

First things first, one should be aware of when there is actual mimicking with instruments and lip-syncing in play before having an opinion. The video I embedded below gives information on how to tell. But there are also technical things that might cause people to incorrectly diagnose lip-syncing. 

If fans are sitting in the back of a stadium – the time it takes sound to carry over distance can make them feel like miming/lip-syncing is happening when it’s not. Viewers might, for example, see a drummer hit a kit before they actually hear the sound. The delay can be mistaken for poor synchronization. 

Also, fans who are watching a live performance on a large-screen video display, either in the venue or remotely as in a live broadcast, are actually seeing a real timing error. These can be created by the video signal processing delay that occurs in the electronic video signal path between the on-stage camera and the large screen displays. 

If you are sure someone is lip-syncing or that the instrumentals are being mimicked, perhaps take into consideration why this is being done before shaming a performer. This is a very divisive subject indeed. 

And keep in mind that the artist may very well be singing live, but it may look suspicious to you, simply because you don’t understand the idea of background vocals and looping. One of the times that artists may appear to not be performing live is when they use a performance track, which includes the instruments, backing vocals, and hook vocals pre-recorded during a live show.

“So, when they go to perform it, they have the support of the stacks they recorded. They have the effects on the background vocals. They’re singing it on top. It’s kind of like karaoke, in a way.” People may think artists are lip-syncing because they might see a section in the performance where the artist doesn’t sing and hear all the vocals from the performance track. “But those are what we consider background vocals that were left in on purpose.”

Ariel Chobaz – Grammy-nominated recording and mix engineer to ABC News’ 20/20

Did you realize that some countries have actually taken legal action against the practice? In the Australian state of New South Wales, the government has considering new laws that would require pop singers to print disclaimers on tickets “to alert fans if [the singers] intend on miming throughout their shows”. Turkmenistan actually made it illegal, because, in the president’s opinion, it harmed the country’s artistic culture.

I believe there is a difference between fraud and normal lip-syncing. The case of Milli-Vanilli just left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth for anything called lip-syncing. The performers had actually accepted Grammy Awards for their music when they had an on-stage flub of a skipping track.

Due to rising public questions regarding the source of singing talent in the group, owner Frank Farian confessed to reporters that Morvan and Pilatus did not actually sing on the records. They were literally puppets performing and miming the vocals of someone else entirely. That is fraud. 

Most people do not commit fraud when they lip-sync. They definitely did belt out those beautiful notes for us and have the talent. However, for one reason or another, they pre-recorded their songs for a specific event and then lip-synced during the event instead of using their voice. So why?  

Complex Performances Effect on Lip-Syncing

Over the years, many music artists have gone from simply singing and pacing on stage to more and more active performances. They not only sing, but they dance and they tumble. The more complex the performance, the less a singer can belt out perfect notes for their audience. But the show must go on, right? 

This trend began in the 1990s. 

“…[a]rtists like Madonna and Janet Jackson set new standards for showmanship, with concerts that included not only elaborate costumes and precision-timed pyrotechnics but also highly athletic dancing. These effects came at the expense of live singing.”

Chris Nelson of The New York Times

Artists lip-sync during strenuous dance routines in both live and recorded formats. Why? Well, you only have so much lung capacity. And if you’re accomplishing a tough physical activity, such as a choreographed dance routine, you may not have the capacity to then wow your fans by belting out challenging notes and choruses. 

Michael Jackson was at one time not only a true talent but had his body well trained enough to keep lung capacity for both the physical and the vocal performance. We can see in the video I’m about to show you that he could do both – but even as disciplined as he was, his vocals are strained in his rendition of “Billy Jean” on stage.

Therefore, he also used lip-syncing. In contrast to the live performance that was not lip-synced, the video shows us that he performed at the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever in 1983. That performance was definitely pre-recorded and he mimed through it, focusing on the physical performance. Lip-syncing didn’t change the impact the showmanship had on the audience. And that was an important takeaway. 

What exactly is that takeaway? The reaction of the audience told performers that their fans are willing to compromise. If your performance is so complex that you are still entertaining, your fans tend to be willing to forgive some lip-syncing. Get to 3:26 if you want to go right to the MJ portion of the video, but the entire video is actually intriguing.  

When artists are putting forth all of this effort, you might also notice that they are off and on lip-syncing. Usher in the previous video was a perfect example. And his performances are generally physical as well as vocal.  

Think about it this way… if the singer sings the main verses and then falls into lip-syncing the chorus, they might be saving their voice from too much strain while also physically exerting themselves. They might also do this through particularly difficult notes to keep their voices from being strained. They mime to a pre-recorded version and then hop back into the live singing once the tougher note is finished.

Most artists feel like this is not cheating, after all, they definitely can hit those notes. They just want to save their voices for the proper timing. But it’s all about what the audience is willing to accept. 

Difficult Venues and Limited Timeframes Effect on Lip-Syncing

There are venues wherein singers simply cannot be expected to sing live and actually have their voice make it to their audience. Artists may also lip-sync in situations in which their backup bands and sound reinforcement systems cannot be accommodated, such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which features popular singers lip-syncing while riding floats.

Productions of musical theatre may include a mix of lip-synced and live musical numbers. In long-running shows, this may be done to help protect the performer’s voice from strain and damage, as well as to maintain a high caliber of production. This is especially true of traveling shows.  

The Phantom of the Opera, with swing actors in the same costumes as the lead actors, gives the illusion of the characters moving around the stage with some mystery. This is a show that actually embeds lip-syncing into the performance to create a sort of special effect. 

Super Bowl live-to-air performances are traditionally lip-synced. The singers of the national anthem were asked to lip-sync “…at the request of the pregame show producer”, who argued that to go live with a singing number would be dealing with too many variables. Super Bowl producers have since admitted that they attempt to have all performers pre-record their vocals, even those for the half-time shows. 

“I’ve been involved in some very big broadcast shows, like the Grammys and the American Music Awards, and the time schedule is so precise. It’s physically not possible to mic an entire band for every segment that comes up.” 

Ariel Chobaz to ABC News’ 20/20 

Pleasing the Audience Expectations 

Artists are so focused on their audience’s pleasure, that they do not want to disappoint. Unlike studio recording, live performance provides only one chance to sing each song correctly. An artist may worry that his or her voice is not strong enough, that it will sound noticeably different from recorded versions, or that they will hit a wrong note. It might ruin many once-in-a-lifetime moments for their fans who have come to see them live. 

They want to make your night perfect. 

“The expectations of fans have changed, and that’s the driving force here … They expect a concert as perfect as what they see on MTV.”

Thom Duffy – Billboard editor

Some of these artists are getting hundreds of dollars per ticket sold. If you’re paying that kind of money to see your favorite singer, do you really want to hear them have an “off-night” and miss several notes during the performance? It’s all about the expectation and wanting to provide the best show. 

The Results

One positive thing to come out of the miming controversy in the 90s was a series called MTV Unplugged. The show used live performances with singers and acoustic instruments, it required performers to “…display their unembellished voices and ability to perform live.” In other words, artists could not use lip-syncing, backup tracks, synthesizers, and racks of vocal effects. With Unplugged, authenticity in live performances again became an important value in popular music. 

I know that I prefer to hear the singer’s true voice, even if it’s imperfect when I pay to see them live. But I tend to go to performances that are mostly about vocalization and not physical performance. Even at those, I often wonder how much is lip-synced, though. I suppose that’s why I miss smaller venues and prefer acoustic/unplugged sets. 

If I were going to see Janet Jackson for her Rhythm Nation 1814 Tour (yep, I’m definitely dating myself by using that example, but it is what it is), I would expect 85% amazing choreography and definitely some lip-syncing to keep the show moving at that pace. So, I suppose my opinion shifts depending upon what type of show I plan on paying to see. 

Even so, a lot of people do not share my opinion. Hence the birth of campaigns such as 

“Live Means Live”. It was launched by songwriter/composer David Mindel. When a band displays the “Live Means Live” logo, the audience knows the show they are hearing and seeing is 100% LIVE and that there is no live pitch correction, no backing tracks, nothing that is not live.

However, over the years, especially with the advent and what some might call the over-use of Auto-Tune, I believe audiences have become more and more lenient with artists and lip-syncing.

Why do Musicians Use Autotune? Does Autotune Help? – Untapped Sound 

After all, as I mentioned before, there is usually a trade out of physical performance to go along with both the use of Auto-Tune and lip-syncing. To be fair, neither lip-syncing nor Auto-Tune can take a mediocre singer and make them into a superstar. The singer has to record the backing tracks of their actual voice for it to be used in a pinch. Which means they have to have talent and skill from the beginning.

There shall be no more Milli Vanilli shenanigans. And Auto-Tune cannot make an awful singer into a good singer. Using either tool doesn’t mean that the performer is less talented, it just means that they and the producers want the performance to be as good as it can be. 

If you want to learn more about lip-syncing and why it is used, Beth Roars made a fantastic video covering it. I’ll drop that below. In the meantime, hope you learned something and if you want to ask me something or add something, contact me at UntappedSoundNC@gmail.com 



SOURCES:

picture by Wendy Wei on Pexels.com: https://www.pexels.com/@wendywei

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lip_sync

https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/pop-stars-lip-sync/story?id=24086986

Rachel Adams

I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio.