TCM Mediaroom

In the Hollywood gem Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play characters who dress up as women in order to join an all-girls jazz band. The scene showing the band’s first rehearsal is a great one, with Curtis and Lemmon giving a first-class performance of comic delivery and facial expression. There is, however, one flaw in the scene: it is obvious that Curtis and Lemmon don’t know how to play the instruments they’re holding, and I tend to find this distracting. I can’t be the only one: it’s now common for actors to take music lessons if they’re playing a musician. For instance, Ryan Gosling took piano lessons in preparation for his work in La La Land, and his performance in the piano-playing scenes was so convincing I expected a Ryan Gosling jazz album to appear.

We can forgive actors for pretending to sing and play instruments, but it seems now that we can even forgive musicians for the same misdemeanour. In 1989 Milli Vanilli, composed of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, was performing live on MTV when the recording of the song they were lip-synching over jammed and skipped, repeating the line “Girl, you know it’s…” over and over. The duo continued to sing and dance for a few more seconds before running offstage. Apparently, the fans at the concert neither noticed nor cared.

Before reproduction, artworks were considered grails with extra-human significance

People cared later that year, when Charles Shaw revealed he was one of the three actual singers on Milli Vanilli’s album All or Nothing, which attributes all vocals to Morvan and Pilatus. Late in 1990, Milli Vanilli had their Grammy revoked and at least 27 different lawsuits were filed against them and their record company under U.S. fraud protection laws. In 1991 a judge approved a settlement allowing about 10 million people who had bought the album to claim a refund.

I doubt people would react the same way now. In 2014, the 16-year old Japanese singer Hatsune Miku opened for Lady Gaga and performed in the U.S., where fans drove from Los Angeles to New York – 2,451 miles – to see her. She’s now on another tour of America, and will be playing in Dallas, New York, and even in Mexico. There is a large degree of artificiality in popular music but Hatsune is on another level: she isn’t real. Crypton Future Media created her as a virtual character to be the face of its music-making software. Because the Japanese language is phonetically restricted, people can write music and words on this software which Hatsune sings somewhat convincingly. Her videos have more than 100 million views on YouTube, and she continually sells out concerts, where she appears via video projection, and gives a perfect performance every time.


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In his famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin praised artistic reproductions because they removed the “aura” from a piece of art. Before reproduction, artworks were considered grails with extra-human significance, and one could only approach them by means of a secular pilgrimage. Reproduction removes artworks from the imposing traditions in which they were made and disseminates them throughout society, making art – and aesthetic pleasure – available to more people than ever before.

Electronic reproduction has complicated Benjamin’s optimistic conclusion, if not disproved it entirely; a singing video projection might be more easily-available than your favourite singer, but that does not make it more accessible. People still travel hundreds of miles to visit museums because only there we can smell the paint, see the strokes, and ponder the mistakes: the qualities associated with human craft and which cannot be reproduced. While electronic reproduction allows more people to hear music, it allows less people to make it. In my home town of Sydney, Australia, there is a row of pubs on Parramatta Road which used to be famous music venues. Now, all one hears there is the jingling tunes of poker machines and the raucous banalities of the stereo. Without a stereo, the publican would have paid a couple of musos to play for the patrons. Why would he bother now? It’s cheaper and easier to play a CD, or (what’s more likely) something from a phone. Yesterday, desperate to play on stage, I put on a wig and make up, but the all-girls jazz band wouldn’t take me. They don’t have any gigs.


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