When Milli Vanilli returned their Grammy awards twenty years ago today, I believed that real music was made by real musicians who wrote their own songs and could actually deliver the goods in a live performance. These days, Kim Zolciak can move thousands of units with nothing more to recommend her than blonde hair and big headlights. Most people don’t seem to mind that she might be better suited to being a professional shopper than a singer. Maybe Milli Vanilli were simply ahead of their time.
Perhaps another difference between the music industry then and now is that the wizard has come out from behind the curtain, and can be clearly seen. The “Real Housewives” franchise ensures that Kandi Burrus gets the (dubious) credit for creating Zolciak as a “singer”, so no one but Kim is fooled into thinking she’s a gold mine of musical talent. Who knows? Her big blonde affability might be translated into big green cash for a little while longer, and hopefully Kandi will get paid this time.
Are our current expectations simply lower than they used to be – “here we are now, entertain us“? Poor Milli Vanilli were just the obvious faces of a much bigger machine that put them on stage, propped them up with a production team and hundred background dancers and replaced their voices with more palatable ones. The times called for long-haired, not-too-black, sexually ambivalent man-boys to dance around the fantasies of children who weren’t quite ready to commit to the hard stuff, and Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus held up their end. From the way the press (and, ironically, the industry that made them) came at Fab and Rob you’d have thought they had untaxed vacation houses in the Dominican Republic and rent-controlled apartments they were wrenching from the people.
Being yourself as a musician is risky. There’s a huge chance that you aren’t as good as you think you are, or that what you are selling, no one wants to buy. Even in jazz there is a seesaw balancing between “technical mastery” and “soul” as predictors of value in an unpredictable marketplace, filled with consumers schooled to revere the image of a thing over the thing itself. As my voice changes and certain things get harder to do, I am consoled by knowing that I keep making music because I feel deeply compelled to, whether anyone likes it (or buys it) or not. If I am not doing music I am completely off my rocker, instead of halfway in the saddle and holding on tight. And if I don’t get support from someone to do that, well, I move along. Perhaps I should be grateful that I wasn’t skinny enough or pretty enough to get the kind of “support” that Rob and Fab got, back in the early 90’s.
Anyway, looking back at this scandal now, it looks like part of the anti-black / anti-gay / anti-dance music backlash that resurfaces every so often and attempts to forcibly separate the men from the boys. Now, all the black men MUST, by definition, be thugs who rotate from prison to record studio, pop and disco are safely in the hands of white girls (and Maroon Five), and no one is expected to sound great without a lot of professional help. It’s an entertainment industry, I get it.
But I think the art is still the heartbeat, and the root.