Is lip-syncing dishonest?
Filipino singer Rhap Salazar stirred a social media storm last July 5 when he tweeted: “I hate seeing artists lip-syncing on TV.” The 19-year-old junior champion at the 2009 World Championships of Performing Arts added that some of these lip-syncers even get albums: “Yung iba nagkaka-album pa.”
Reactions were as swift as they were strong. Because the tweet came right after a performance of young stars James Reid and Nadine Lustre in “ASAP 20,” there was speculation that Salazar was referring to them, and fans of “JaDine” were quick to defend their idols even as the singer denied any allusion to anyone.
Netizens were divided, with some calling Salazar “papansin” (attention-grabber), but many others backed him by calling out “non-legit singers.” Lea Salonga responded by pointing out the occasional necessity of lip-syncing, when, for instance, the singer is sick, or if there are technical issues. Boy Abunda and Vice Ganda took exception to the use of the word “hate.” Gary Valenciano, for his part, defended Salazar, highlighting the plight of singers who are sidelined by those who are visually more appealing. Other celebrities, like Anne Curtis, were forced to defend themselves by saying that they don’t lip-sync.
“It’s just a tweet,” Salazar later said.
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Lip-syncing, the act of “moving the lips in synchronization with [pre-]recorded speech or song,” has stirred controversy for decades, raising the question of whether it is an acceptable part of a performance, or a form of dishonesty that robs live audiences of what they deserve or conceals a lack of talent.
In 1990, some lawmakers from New York and New Jersey attempted to regulate lip-syncing by demanding that artists be up-front about whether they were singing live, as listeners are paying for the “live-ness” of the music. By that time, however, the rise of the “music video” has made visual effects just as important as the music, and the complex dance moves that singers have to do while performing—in the tradition of Michael Jackson—have made it difficult for them to replicate the quality of their recordings in live concerts.
Recent examples give us further insight. For instance, Beyonce had to admit lip-syncing the “Star-Spangled Banner” during the inauguration of US President Barack Obama in 2013, amid much controversy. The multiawarded singer defended herself: “Due to no proper sound check, I did not feel comfortable taking a risk. It was about the president and the inauguration, and I wanted to make him and my country proud, so I decided to sing along with my prerecorded track, which is very common in the music industry. And I’m very proud of my performance.”
During the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the worldwide TV audience was impressed by the performance of 9-year-old Lin Miaoke, who came on stage to sing a patriotic Chinese song, “Ode to the Motherland.” However, it later emerged that it was actually another girl, Yang Peiyi, who sang the song, but Lin was chosen for being more photogenic. “We had to make that choice. It was fair both for Lin Miaoke and Yang Peiyi,” the music director was quoted as saying. “We combined the perfect voice and the perfect performance.”
As we can see from these examples, there is a tension between, on one hand, the demand for authenticity, and on the other hand, the need to fulfill expectations—whether of vocal quality or a pitch-perfect performance. Moreover, the fact that singers must be photogenic speaks of the inexorable link we have placed between vocal talent and physical attractiveness.
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Rhap Salazar’s tweet also ignited the question of whether singing talent alone should be the measure of a recording artist’s worth, and whether so-called “nonsingers” have the right to perform live and make albums, augmented by aids like lip-syncing and music editing. This question is complicated by what singing—and being a celebrity—means in the Philippines. What does being a “singer” even mean in a country where everyone sings in videokes?
Can Manny Pacquiao, for instance, be called a singer? Journalist Rafe Bartholomew observed: “Pacquiao’s off-key monster ballads … are part of the natural progression of Philippine celebrity. Last year, former PBA most valuable player Arwind Santos released an album; like Pacquiao, he’s no singer.”
Moreover, for Filipino actors and actresses, singing is almost like a requirement. As an actress-friend once told me: “You need to sing because they expect it. You’re not a celebrity if you don’t know how to sing.”
In light of these expectations, then, we can view stars who lip-sync not so much as pretentious singers as celebrities merely catering to fans who demand their voice as part of their embrace of their total personality.
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The demand for authenticity, however, is a welcome challenge to which our music and show biz industry must try to respond. The problem is not that nonsingers get a lot of exposure, but that a lot of singers don’t. Shows like “The Voice” do open doors to talented individuals, but most singers—and musicians in general—still don’t get the attention (and the pay) they deserve.
Audiences have a voice in this debate. Stardom, after all, is a social contract between the star and his or her fans, a negotiation between his or her talents and audience expectations. Thus, the acceptability of lip-syncing will ultimately be for Filipino audiences to decide.
Through their reactions to Rhap Salazar’s tweet, they might just have made their preferences known.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.
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