All the artists of the world: The case of Milli Vanilli

milli vanilli acceptance

Exhibit M

22 February 1990. The 1990 Grammy Awards, recognising the musical output of 1989. Young MC and Kris Kristofferson present the Grammy for Best New Artist. “This year, the nominees for Best New Artist are making all kinds of music,” the bespectacled author of “Keep It In Your Pants” says. “And each one of them expresses himself in a unique way that commands attention,” Young’s elder co-presenter concludes.

The nominees are announced, along with a video clip of a respresentative song. There’s Neneh Cherry, rippin’ shit up with “Buffalo Stance”; the Indigo Girls belting out some harmonious acoustic pop on “Closer To Fine”. So far the applause is polite and appreciative.

Then comes Milli Vanilii’s nomination, along with the braided pair singing, “Girl you know it’s true. Ooh, ooh, ooh, I love you.” And dancing. And staring with those needy eyes. The audience breaks out into screaming and rapturous applause. Yes, yes, Rob and Fab!

Back to Soul II Soul and a bit of their art/house/soul/pop song “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)”; and finally gravel-voiced rapper Tone Loc rounds out the nominations with his Young MC-penned track “Funky Cold Medina”.

The winner is announced. Milli Vanilli. The room erupts with screams. Yay!

Rob and Fab receive their award, and Rob makes this speech:

“We wanna say thank you very much, but we wanna say there are a lot of artists here in this room, there are a lot of artists outside in the world, who could achieve the same award that we achieved today. And it’s an award for all artists in the world. Thank you very much.”

That night, all the artists in the world gave silent thanks to Milli Vanilli.

Exhibit L

April 27, 2034

“Come here, my little ones. Gather around and I’ll tell you why we used to like the Milli Vanillis in the olden days. Oh, they were so pretty. It was like if you got Justin Beiber, made him brown, cloned him, gave him too many hair extensions, and dressed him in lycra bike pants, a jacket with giant shoulder pads and clompy boots. And how they could dance! They used to do this thing where they would jump up and spin around and their dreadlocks and braids flew about gaily. And that Rob, he had the most beautiful eyes.”

“Grandma?”

“Yes, child.”

“Who’s Justin Bieber?”

Exhibit K

November 16 1990. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences withdraws Milli Vanilli’s Grammy for Best New Artist.

The main point comes down to the vocal credit on the album specifically naming Rob and Fab.

But the awarded recordings themself hadn’t changed. Milli Vanilli hadn’t changed. It was just that the two fellows on the album cover and in the music videos and dancing on stage were different from the men who sang on the record.

But somehow that affected the recording.

Exhibit J

It’s a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat. It’s not until you lift the lid on the album that you can form an opinion on the music. If the cat is alive, there’s a couple of handsome singers on the album and it’s a great album; if the cat is dead, it’s ordinary looking session singers on the album and it’s a terrible album.

Exhibit H

January 1990. Happy new decade. I had a $15 record voucher from either my recent 15th birthday present and/or Christmas the week before. I’d recently purchased De La Soul’s debut album Three Feet High and Rising and was really enjoying it. Yeah, soundtrack of summer.

So I was feeling a bit adventurous. I wanted something a bit urban, a bit gritty. Something that would keep reminding me of my summer holiday in Auckland and not the impending return to rural Hamilton.

I looked around a forgettable record shop (remember, kids, this was the early ’90s, when record shops were all over the place and could easily be forgettable), but I couldn’t find anything that took my fancy.

Then I saw something on the top 20 rack of tapes. It was Milli Vanilli’s All or Nothing (US Remix Album). I’d heard their songs. They were ok. I bought the tape, listened to it a few times but it wasn’t very captivating.

One of the album tracks was “Girl You Know It’s True (NY Subway Mix)”. This suggests someone has taken the original “Girl You Know It’s True” and remixed it to reflect the gritty urban beat of New York’s public transport system.

In reality it’s like someone’s heard MARRS’s groundbreaking samplefest Pump Up the Volume and decided to apply a similar style to Milli Vanilli. But instead of using an experienced DJ, it sounds like they gave the work-experience kid a Fairlight and some Grace Jones, Sly and Robbie, Michael Jackson, and Deep Purple singles and let them have at it. With disastrous results.

If I really want to feel a stab of regret, I can remind myself that at the time, The Stone Roses album would have been out there on the shelves for me to buy.

Exhibit G

April 2 1998. Let’s try not to think of Rob Pilatus’ final night on earth, alone in a hotel room in Hamburg, an accidental overdose. Let’s try not to think of the drug rehab and the assault charges and the relapsing and the neediness and the depression. Let’s try to remember the good things.

Exhibit F

After it was revealed that Rob and Fab were not the people singing on the Milli Vanilli records or dancing in their videos, the public outrage made it clear – there is no room for lack of authenticity in pop music.

Yet, surprisingly, the Indigo Girls did not see their sales go through the roof in response to this newfound desire for musical authenticity.

A lesson was learned – cheat, just don’t get caught. Today no one’s quite so bold as to hire pretty frontmen for frumpy singers. But there’s Auto-Tune to tidy up messy singers. Or what about getting a great singer to record the demo, which the mediocre singer memorises, right down to the quirky phrasing. And the potential that ProTools offers for chopping and layering to disguise flaws.

But why are we still obsessed with authenticity in music? Why is it ok for some types of art to be polished to an artifical state of perfection, but not ok for others?

Exhibit E

We hide our love for Milli Vanilli. We disguise it as contempt for the ’90s, beecause the ’90s were awful. At the moment, at least.

Milli Vanilli gets filed away with Crystal Pepsi, biker shorts and giant hair – pop culture anomalies that will never happen again.

Because the past was awful and the present is better. Apart from the bits of the past that were golden. We cherish those.

But that’s not the Milli Vanilli bit. That’s the bit where we pretend we never bought a Milli Vanilli album. Or if we did, we thought it was awful.

We don’t remember all the songs that went to number one all over the world, or the joy people got from dancing to “Baby Don’t Forget My Number (NY Subway Mix)”.

Perhaps that actually happened in a parallel universe, where Al Gore was president and the World Trade Center still stands.

Exhibit D

Q. Do you like Milli Vanilli?

A. No, I do not like Milli Vanilli because I think that they are crap!!!! I mean, they don’t even write their own songs or sing on their records and they have those braids which look really STUPID. Also, they do those dumb dances where they go from side to side, which look really LAME. Plus they wear really weird clothes with giant shoulder pads. Shoulder pads are so mental. I like proper singers who are actually talented, like Margaret Urlich, Jamie J Morgan, Ngaire and Madonna.

Exhibit C

I mean, it’s not like they were the only ones doing it. Technotronic had blue-lipped fashion model Felly lip-syncing in their Pump Up the Jam video; petit Zelma Davis stood in for plus-size Martha Walsh in C+C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat video; and it was shockingly revealed that Paula Abdul’s singing partner MC Skat Kat was not actually a streetwise cat, but was, in fact, two human males.

Exhibit B

Rob did the grunty singing and Fab did the rapping, but there always seemed to be a few more male voices in there too. And maybe there was even a voice of caution from the future.

It’s a tragedy for me to see the dream is over.
And I never will forget the day we met.
[Multi-platinum pop career], I’m gonna miss you.

Girl I’m Gonna Miss You

Exhibit A

2 thoughts on “All the artists of the world: The case of Milli Vanilli”

  1. This post impressed (and, yep, moved) me so much, both for its craft and its storytelling. I remember seeing the VH1 special on Rob Pilatus some years ago, and thinking that just for once their format was suited to their subject. The shots of his final interview a few days before he died, in which he was doing yoga headstands and some similar breakdancing moves to show his continuing athleticism, were too melancholic for words.

  2. While they were all good artists and songs and all more deserving of the win, the only ones I still listen to and buy are the Indigo Girls. 1200 curfews is still on high rotate and they made me cry with the All that we let in album. Bastards.

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