Mariah New Years Eve

Lip Service

The first I heard of it was the morning after, from an 8-year-old girl who’s preparing to perform in Annie at her school. Describing Mariah Carey’s midnight performance in Times Square, Fiona threw her arms up in confusion, saying, “She didn’t even try.”

Within seconds, I watched, in amazement, on YouTube. Having executive produced Carey on two VH1 Divas Live shows, my stomach tightened out of professional courtesy. Almost from the beginning, she had indeed given up.

Lip syncing on TV is de rigueur. Elvis, the Beatles, and at least every act that ever played on American Bandstand (and many other programs) did it long before Ashley Simpson got caught and laughed at on SNL in the aughts.

In concert, “vocal-live-to-track” performances are standard, employing a crew of volume jockeys who mix the mic of J. Lo, Madonna, Janet, Britney and so many others with the pre-recorded tracks so they can make live sounds when they catch their breath. Most acts now incorporate some pre-recorded programming or at least triggered samples to sweeten their live wall of sound.

Since MTV began raising the bar of live television concert presentation many years ago, we’ve been steadily conditioned to expect orchestra pits filled with hyper-excited fans, hosts reading hyperbolic copy from the prompter, legions of choreographed dancers, elaborate lighting, hair extensions, enhanced crowd audio, wardrobe failures, and smoke and mirrors. It’s no wonder singers can feel, when performing on live TV, like their future hangs on how good they look AND how perfectly they sound that night.

I feel for Mariah and her contemporaries for the ageism they face. Brings to mind four of the biggest rock stars still touring, men that have all had multiple hair transplants and work out like professional athletes to maintain their figures. The glow of a teleprompter (for lyric memory) may be upon their faces, but you probably won’t catch them lip synching. It’s got to be tougher for women, even for royalty. Aretha Franklin, doing the anthem on Thanksgiving in Detroit, took criticism for her elongated (fully live) performance, despite how soulfully she sang and played piano.

Conditioned by digital media use, our culture wants it “bright and snappy.”

I’ll bet Beyonce doesn’t lip sync much. Same for Abel of the Weeknd. Having inherited and trained their instruments, elite singers often opt to go all out with live vocals. My music fan friends and I are always looking for those outstanding, authentic TV performances, where danger thins the air and only the cream dare float.

The artificiality of so many TV events has trickled down. My son’s grade school talent show is so heavily populated with kids who simply lip sync their favorite song that the microphone is turned on for maybe half the event. At an open mic in lower Manhattan two weeks ago, several upstart Hip Hop acts rapped over full recordings of their songs as singer/songwriters waited, tuning their acoustic guitars. While someone shot Snapchat moments with their phone, the rapper’s friends applauded enthusiastically.

Mariah used to have a remarkable, if not durable, voice. Her A&R guy, Randy Jackson (American Idol), insisted she could finesse the paint off the studio walls with her range. She didn’t tour prolifically because she had to “rest” it so often.

But for whatever reason, she wasn’t up to the task of singing OR lip syncing on New Year’s Eve. Had she dropped the mic and fled, the tone of the narrative might be more forgiving. But Mariah quit and stayed. And now, the awkward moments are sadly unforgettable.

Perfect set up for her next TV show.