Sunday, May 17, 2015


I don't want to overestimate how scandalized the world was in the early 90s when it was revealed that the German hunks Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus were not the actual voices behind Milli Vanilli. It's hard to image that anyone really cared, but they did. The group had won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1990. When their charade was exposed, the award was revoked. As far as the public eye was concerned, this was maybe the greatest music industry scandal since it was revealed that The Monkees didn't play their own instruments.

Nesmith and hat
One of my favourite versions of that Monkees outrage occurs in The Simpsons, where Marge is flashing back to traumatic experiences in her life and remembers a day on the school bus when another little girl explained that The Monkees didn't play their own instruments. Adding insult to injury, the little girl points out, "That's not even Michael Nesmith's real hat." It's a passing dig, but it goes a way to point how just how braided image and music is in pop culture.

Around the time that Milli Vanilli's pop ruse was being uncovered, The Monkees were enjoying one of their many career rejuvenations thanks to reruns of their hit late-60s show playing endlessly on MTV and Much Music. Watching the show then, and now, it's hard to believe anyone, for one thing, ever thought these guys were actually a real band or, for another, cared whether or not they were legit. The Monkees feel like an obvious goofball send-up of real contemporary moptops. Similarly, listening now to Milli Vanilli, it's tough to conceive of hackles getting up over the dud bombshell that these German guys were lip-synching. If you were listening to Milli Vanilli for the music, perhaps you deserved to get hurt by the truth. It's not like either of these acts were The Beatles or The Beach Boys or anything.

The kicker of both these scenarios, though, is that in the wake of the backlash the real Monkees went on to release albums they'd written and performed – offering up the legitimacy that had been requested – and they flopped. Likewise, when the fake singers were removed from Milli Vanilli, forming a "new" band dubbed The Real Milli Vanilli, the same material with different faces also tanked.

In pop music, there's always been a strained relationship between performance and presentation. "Video killed the radio star," as the song goes. When listeners become viewers as well, expectations get created that are often hard to fulfill. This might seem to be a recent problem, except pop music has always been sort of duplicitous, a veil that gets lifted in The Wrecking Crew.

The Wrecking Crew loosely describes an often anonymous group of studio musicians – membership ranges from anywhere between 10 and 30 – who, when combined with reliable hit-making producers like Phil Spector, contributed to and sometimes defined a wide range of popular music throughout the 60s – from Herb Alpert to Nancy Sinatra to the M*A*S*H theme. This was a new generation of studio musicians who, according to the older, more traditional cadre of session players, would wreck the industry. Indeed, these newbies performed anything and everything, from TV themes, to jingles, to #1 hits. They'd take any job and they could play anything. They were rarely credited, but incessantly tapped.

The Crew thrived in an industry that was making a two-fold transition. Image was becoming increasingly important at the same time production was becoming increasingly refined. Groups that were popular personalities couldn't necessarily hold their own in the studio. With radio still the most important launching pad, as good as an act might have looked, they had to sound as good if not better.

By the son of Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, The Wrecking Crew (which is actually a few years old, but finally seeing the light of day after hold-ups licensing the music) makes for an introduction to this time, to these players. Essentially, the Crew were hired guns, but they brought a great deal of innovation to the jobs they were hired for. Their seemingly ubiquitous contribution to more than a decade's worth of music represents a mix of labour and creativity, the lot of which was unsung. Though no one was denying that most of these records were being pulled off by a cadre of masters, the illusion of pop stars helming the recordings was still important to the industry.

In retrospect, it shouldn't come as a surprise that The Wrecking Crew basically was The Monkees – The Monkees being a false front erected solely to move pop songs – but a harder pill to swallow may be the fact that they were also sometimes The Beach Boys. As Brian Wilson began to take the already popular familial surf fluff in incomparable directions, the rest of The Boys simply didn't have the chops to realize and execute it. When it came time for The Monkees to play live, they'd learned their instruments well enough to pull of their catalog, and The Beach Boys did essentially the same. But now The Beach Boys are lauded and The Monkees a sometimes-bankable joke. Either way, The Wrecking Crew got paid and moved on to the next hit.

The Wrecking Crew doesn't itself ask the question directly, but it's begged throughout: if the music's good, does it matter who writes and plays it? The role of authenticity in pop music – as much as we consider pop music art, or vice versa – has always been complicated. As Milli Vanilli was being hung from the tallest cultural tree, and as The Monkees were making a comeback, grunge (or alternative, if you like) was becoming pop. The raspy brooding coming out of the Northwest arrived as a sort of reaction to the gaudy arena wanking that had dominated the 80s, and ushered in a new era of the songwriter's connection to the song. If it had then been revealed that a Nirvana song had been written by anyone other than Kurt, culture would have shot it's bolts. The movement seemed to promise that the gap between performance and performer was snapping shut.

Yet pop music continues to have a troubled relationship with perceptions of authenticity. When Beck won the Grammy for Album of the Year at this year, Kanye West stormed the stage to make tin-logic declarations about what an artist was or wasn't. More interesting than that bloviation, though, was the public's reaction. Between Beck and Beyoncé, who was the true artist? One argument featured a side-by-side compassion of the individual input of each, showing that Beck had his hand in every aspect of the music, from writing to performance, whereas Beyoncé's kitchen was full of cooks. There's no satisfying conclusion to this dispute; different people have different expectations when it comes to their tunes. It usually takes a village to raise a hit song, no matter how close the product is to the producer.

What it really comes down to is Michael Nesmith's hat. If you think he looks good in it, you shouldn't care whether he brought it from home or not.

- Andrew 

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