Were the Beatles better musicians and singers than songwriters? It’s a question worth asking. As in could they have produced even more hits if they’d left the songwriting to others? John Lennon once said it all began musically with Elvis Presley, and Presley left the writing to others.
Most famously, legendary Beach Boy Brian Wilson loathed touring, so much so that he sent the Beach Boys band out on the road so that he could focus all of his energies on songwriting and recording with unknown-to-the-buying-public studio musicians. Pet Sounds, viewed by many music experts (I know nothing about music) as one of the greatest albums of all time, was the result of Wilson outsourcing his performing to others.
These anecdotes came to mind while reading Frank Farian’s obituary in the New York Times. Farian was a prominent music producer for decades, but his name will always be most associated with Milli Vanilli, a two-man act that turned out to not be what so many assumed.
For those who don’t know about Milli Vanilli, it was a musical duo comprised of Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan. Times reporter Alex Williams described them as “telegenic performers who knew how to rock a shimmering stage costume and move their feet.” The alleged “challenge” was that neither performer was a very good singer. No problem, it turned out.
As many readers are well aware, Farian had already recorded an album with studio musicians whom Farian concluded lacked “the look to beguile young MTV audiences.” Which, as musical history makes clear, can be a problem.
To understand why, consider the 2013 documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom. About the backup singers who gave life to so many well-known tunes, there was a reason these backups were always twenty feet from center stage despite their amazing voices: they lacked the charisma to be lead singers. It’s that basic.
Farian once again sensed this about the musicians he produced the 1989 album Girl You Know It’s True with. In which case he signed up Pilatus and Morvan to be the faces of his music. Farian’s instincts proved wildly correct. Girl You Know It’s True yielded four hits, three of them #1 singles, and sold over 10 million albums.
Based on the strength of the album, Milli Vanilli went out on tour. The problems began at a July of 1989 concert in Bristol, CT when the vocal track skipped over and over again as Pilatus and Morvan performed it. Then the duo won a Grammy for Best New Artist. Williams reports that the Grammy win shined too bright a light on the faces of the music, so much so that Farian confessed.
As many readers remember, Milli Vanilli was disgraced. Pilatus and Morvan became a collective punchline. Eight years later Pilatus died of a heart attack. The story is very sad, and the view here is that it’s time to correct the negative perception of the musical act. Better yet, the speculation here is that in time there will be numerous musical acts that resemble Milli Vanilli. Think about it.
Just as bands and individual acts have often outsourced the songwriting to songwriters, just as bands have outsourced the recording of their music to session musicians (think the Beach Boys once again, and Brian Wilson’s recording of songs with the legendary Wrecking Crew), why shouldn’t some musical acts outsource the presentation of their work to those with looks and moves that are more stage and audience friendly? Isn’t the goal of musicians to reach as many listeners as possible?
What Farian, Pilatus and Morvan did just seems so logical, particularly in a world that grows more globalized by the day. Everything, from the pencil to the iPhone, is a beautiful consequence of sophisticated global cooperation, so why not music?
As Farian himself later explained it about Milli Vanilli, “It was two people in the studio, and two people onstage. One part was visual, one part recorded. Such projects are an art form in themselves, and the fans were happy with the music.” Exactly. Frank Farian wasn’t wrong, or a bad guy, or a fraud, he was just ahead of his time. So was Milli Vanilli. Give the musical act its due.
Republished from RealClear Markets