Wages of Silence: Milli Vanilli Loses A Grammy Award
By Jon Pareles
The New York Times
November 20, 1990
Milli Vanilli, the pop duo that has admitted it did not sing on its albums or in concert, has been stripped of the Grammy Award it won as best new artist for 1989.
Fabrice Morvan and Rob Pilatus of Milli Vanilli had planned to give back their Grammy at a news conference scheduled for today and had told The Los Angeles Times that they would like to hand it over to the singers who had actually performed on the album: Brad Howell, Johnny Davis and Charles Shaw. But the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which gives the Grammy Awards, revoked the award yesterday after a telephone poll of its 34 trustees. Michael Greene, the president of the academy, said that the trustees "were just livid about the situation."
The academy is still considering whether to give the award to the 1989 runner-up or to give no award for that year; a decision is to be announced Dec. 5. Mr. Greene would not name the runner-up; the other nominees were the rapper Tone-Loc, the singer and songwriter Neneh Cherry, and the groups Soul II Soul and the Indigo Girls.
Manipuluation Not Uncommon
Milli Vanilli's album "Girl You Know It's True" has sold seven million copies in the United States. The music was synthesizer-driven pop created by the German producer Frank Farian, who had had an international hit during the disco era with the group Boney M.
Mr. Morvan, born in Guadeloupe, and Mr. Pilatus, from West Germany, are both 25 years old. They began working with Mr. Farian after he had produced the single "Girl You Know It's True"; as they promoted the single in Europe, Mr. Farian put together an album.
Virtually all recorded music is the product of studio manipulation. Classical albums are typically pieced together from the best of multiple takes of a work; even live albums, classical and popular, are often patched up to correct wrong notes. Most popular music is created on multi-track tape that allows dozens of separate elements to be perfected and combined.
Dance-pop like Milli Vanilli's album can be recorded with the efforts of a small group of people. A single songwriter-producer can generate all of the instrumental sounds, from computerized drums to synthetic horns. All that needs to be added is human voices, so it is possible that only the producer, the recording engineer and the performers would know who appeared on the album.
"Girl You Know It's True" was already a hit in Europe when the American label Arista Records became interested. Mr. Farian submitted an album's worth of dance songs to Arista, but the label insisted that he add four songs to suit American tastes. Mr. Pilatus and Mr. Morvan have said that Arista knew they were not the singers, but Arista executives have insisted they were not told. "When the rumors started, I asked Arista if there was anything I needed to know here," Mr. Greene said. "They said I did not."
Through video clips, Mr. Morvan and Mr. Pilatus became pop icons with their waist-length dreadlocks and their energetic dancing. While the album yielded hit singles, Milli Vanilli toured arenas in the United States as part of a Club MTV package tour, lip-synching while they danced. At a concert at Radio City Music Hall to benefit AIDS research, Mr. Pilatus and Mr. Morvan ran offstage when there were technical difficulties with their tape. A few moments later, their song boomed out, vocals and all.
There had been widespread rumors that Milli Vanilli had not performed on the album. In December, Newsday reported that Mr. Shaw had claimed credit for the rap and chorus vocals in "Girl You Know It's True." But Mr. Shaw recanted soon afterward. Mr. Farian admitted the deception after Mr. Pilatus and Mr. Morvan demanded that they sing on the follow-up album.
Groups have been fabricated in the past; most of the Monkees' music was made by studio musicians, and it is generally believed that the Village People, a popular group during the disco era, were not the singers who appeared on their albums. Even groups that take credit for playing their own instruments have been known to bolster their recorded efforts with uncredited studio musicians. But Milli Vanilli were the first fabricated group to win a Grammy; the credit on the album reads, "Vocals: Fab and Rob."
The World of Packaging
"They not only had been given credibility by record sales and chart action," Mr. Greene said, "but they'd been given the record industry's highest award. When that happens, it makes all of the industry look bad."
"I think that if Milli Vanilli just had a line that said, 'Milli Vanilli is . . .' with a list of all the real singers, not just Fab and Rob, we would have never taken this action," Mr. Greene said. "Our action is predicated on a falsification of label credit. If the rumors persist this year about any of the nominees, I think we'll probably take a little more aggressive position with the labels to see if they've done any investigation.
"Now that we're in this world of music packaging, where the lines that used to be there have gotten blurred, maybe this will serve as a notification to the record companies that people in the public do care about who did what. People may start to admit that it's an amalgamated process, and the listeners may not give a damn. But if I were a fan, i would feel like it was fraud."
Elliot Sekuler, a spokeman for Mr. Morvan and Mr. Pilatus said they were being courted by other producers and labels. "They hope to be able to pick up the pieces of their careers," he said, "and to record for real this time."
GRAPHIC: Photo: Rob Pilatus, left, and Fab Morvan of the group Milli Vanilli were stripped of their Grammy award yesterday after saying last week that they did not sing on their hit album, "Girl You Know It's True." (Ruters)
Copyright 1990 The New York Times Company