I feel bad for Katy Perry today, as embarrassing footage of her lip sync fail has gone viral. (If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s all over the internet, here’s one post on Gawker) And then there’s this clip of a terrible performance on X Factor UK. Everyone wants to talk about how awful she is, how disappointing, etc. How her “real voice” is so much worse than what we hear in her recordings.
The thing is, most pop stars’ actual singing voices do not sound the same as the processed final product that we hear on the radio. Autotune seems to be a requirement these days, even if the singer doesn’t really need it. Most pop singers are so heavily processed in their recordings that the voice sounds like a machine to me, not like a real singer. REAL VOICES DON’T SOUND LIKE THAT. I have to explain this to my pop-singing students all the time: you can’t make your voice sound like that recording, because the voice in that recording has had all kinds of digital effects and processing done. That’s not a real person’s voice, it’s an effect. There are only a handful of pop singers whose real voices sound like their recordings (Beyoncé and Emeli Sandé are the first to come to mind), because, unfortunately, the majority of consumers don’t care about the singing. They care about the image.
And the other thing is, almost every pop star lip syncs for at least some performances. That’s just the way it is. When you’re singing with in-ear monitors to hear yourself and your band, it’s hard to hear anything clearly. If the mix isn’t right, you may not be able to find your pitch. If it’s a particularly large venue where getting the right sound balance will be tricky, if the focus is on elaborate choreography and putting on a spectacular show, live singing is not the point. It’s by no means impossible to pull off a good live performance under these circumstances, and there are singers that can do it, but many can’t. And it unfortunately comes down to the fact that sometimes live singing is too hard and would take away from the “performance.” It’s about the spectacle. It’s about the image, about putting on an amazing show, about special effects and costumes and lights and dancers. It’s rarely about the singing.
People get all worked up when a malfunction like this draws are attention to the fact that our beloved pop stars are not the greatest singers. The truth is, talent doesn’t sell the way that a carefully crafted image does. There are some really great singers out there who are truly talented and whose finished recordings sound like their natural voice, but those great musicians rarely become mega-stars. In fact, I think that valuing your music and your voice is not very compatible with having a career as a pop star. You either choose to be a great musician or you let yourself be made into a celebrity.
And another thing: pop singers are often on rigorous and very demanding tour schedules. Heavy pop belting can be really tiring on the voice, especially if it’s not done carefully. Yet the singer is rarely in a position to say, “wait a second, I need a day off in between shows so that I can rest,” because the singer is rarely the one making the decisions. So, do you sing even though maybe your voice is thrashed and you know it won’t be your best performance, or do you take a night off and lip sync?
I’m not saying that I agree with the way things are, I’m just saying that it’s a complex situation and I’m more surprised when I discover a pop star who can actually sing well then when I find out that one is not as great as they appear. If you look at other Katy Perry performances where she is clearly singing live (the minor pitch problems are the giveaway), they are not nearly as bad as the ones that have surfaced in the past few days. She’s not a terrible singer, she’s just clearly had a bad couple of shows. She obviously doesn’t sound the same live as she does in her recordings, but very few mainstream pop singers do.
Maybe someday the focus will be on the music instead of the spectacle, and singers will be able to concentrate on giving awesome live performances without all the dancing and special effects and nonsense. But until then, mainstream audiences will continue to expect unrealistic levels of showmanship and excitement (and then turn vicious when their pop idols reveal that they are, in fact, only humans), and singers will continue having to compromise in one way or another to deliver what’s expected of them.