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Music

The Truth of Milli Vanilli a Generation Later

David Himmel

This musical duo that never really was a musical duo prepared a nation of adolescents for disappointment -- and the eventual acceptance of Auto-Tune.


Milli Vanilli

Girl You Know Its True

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This musical duo that never really was a musical duo prepared a nation of adolescents for disappointment -- and the eventual acceptance of Auto-Tune.

“It’s a tragedy for me to see the dream is over.”

-- "Girl I’m Gonna Miss You"

I was 11 years old when I learned the truth about the truth. It brings to light human depravity and results in extreme disappointment. And I have Milli Vanilli to thank for this realization.

It’s been almost 25 years since Milli Vanilli’s first album, Girl You Know It’s True, came to the United States and made Milli Vanilli the biggest musical act in the world. It’s been almost as long since the rug of success was pulled out from under its feet—and ours. Twenty-five years. That’s a whole generation.

We cannot forget, nor downplay, the cultural effect of two handsome, dark-skinned European models—one German (Rob Pilatus), the other French (Fab Morvan)—lip-synching to voice tracks recorded by less attractive singers. The impact of this fame-hungry duo was global and paramount, especially for a pre-teen white Jewish boy living in a wealthy Chicago suburb.

By their pre-teens, many kids begin breaking away from the styles and conventions of their parents. Even if it’s not mad rebellion, a kid’s choice in music is often the first piece of culture he or she calls his or her own. Mine came when I was nine years old in the spring of 1989. That’s when I saw the Girl You Know It’s True video on MTV.

I made my mother drive me to the mall so I could spend three week’s of my allowance money on a Girl You Know It’s True tape. I played the thing so repetitively that within a month, both sides A and B sounded warped, abused. I took that as a badge of honor. I knew every word to every song. When I wasn’t listening to the tape in my bedroom, reworking dance routines and imagining I was serenading the cute girls in my fifth grade class, specifically, Kim Bartholomew, I was glued to MTV in hopes of catching a Milli Vanilli video.

Milli Vanilli was giving me lyrics to understand the feelings I had toward the opposite sex. I was a huge Hall & Oates fan, but putting a kiss on a list made absolutely no sense to me. And the “Maneater” video was terrifying. However, “Girl, you know it’s true / Ooo, ooo, ooo / I love you” was crystal clear.

The songs were perfect late ‘80s synth-pop that echoed the chic of that decade while paying stylistic heed to the decade that would be. The videos were rich with this modern panache, and though Rob and Fab made leggings look good before any pretty girl in boots and a long sweater did, I couldn’t help but think that they did bear a striking resemblance to Tomax and Xamot, Cobra’s Crimson Twins of G.I. Joe fame.

And that name was just fun to say: “Milli Vanilli”. It sounded like some new wave milk shake flavor. (The name was actually taken from a busted-down Berlin disco). Milli Vanilli was like nothing I’d ever heard or seen, and I wanted to be a part of it.

And I wasn’t alone. Girl You Know It’s True went platinum six times in the US between 1989 and 1990; the duo won three American Music Awards and the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. Milli Vanilli songs served as guideposts in life. Before the days of cell phones, “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” was an anthem of romantic pleading.

The band’s biggest hit, “Blame It on the Rain”, had an entire generation falsely accusing the weather for countless emotional failures. That duo was changing the world and that mattered. At the very least, Milli Vanilli was changing “my” world. I thought the high of the excitement would last forever.

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But then I heard Rob and Fab speak. They sounded very different from their singing voices. Their accents had people asking all sorts of questions, especially, how could two people with such, well 'European' accents could sound so American—so strikingly different when singing?

I rationalized this using the Phil Collins Principle.

Years before, I asked my father—an avid Collins fan—why the man singing "Sussudio" didn’t sound like the Englishman I heard speaking in MTV interviews and in the 1988 movie, Buster.

Dad replied with a guess: “Singing just makes you sound different. Take James Taylor,” he said. “he sings beautifully, but has such a wimpy, whiny speaking voice. And Jim Nabors… same thing. Beautiful singing voice.”

It was a stretch, but it made sense. Besides, it’s not like Milli Vanilli would lip-synch, I told myself.

Stories began to circulate about one of the real singers, Charles Shaw, being paid $150,000 by the group’s founder and producer, Frank Farian, to keep the truth quiet. A vocal track skipped and repeated itself over and over again during a live concert, causing Rob and Fab to flee the stage in confusion and embarrassment. The sparkle surrounding Milli Vanilli vanished, revealing the hideousness beneath it all.

Farian knew that Milli Vanilli was soon going to be an even bigger joke than anything Keenan Ivory and Damen Wayans could make it be on the TV show, In Living Color. So in November 1990, Farian announced to the world that Rob and Fab were not the voices of Milli Vanilli, just the faces.

Only 20 months after Girl You Know It’s True arrived stateside, Rob and Fab were delivered to the vicious and rabid beast that is the American media and its public scorned. They said that Farian had duped the duo. They said that Rob and Fab were victims of excess and fame, which Farian placed so invitingly at their feet. They said that they were pawns in the wretched game called the music business.

And for a moment, we wanted to believe in Rob and Fab, because Americans love an underdog. But with everything out in the open, like the fact that Rob and Fab couldn’t sing given the chance, Milli Vanilli became the new Enemy of The State. Milli Vanilli was able to keep its American Music Awards but the Grammy Award was stripped away because, while the AMAs are a fan-based kind of contest, the Grammys claimed to have some sort of artistic legitimacy.

Arista Records dropped the act and destroyed the Girl You Know It’s True master files, as if that delicious pop perfection of synthesized goodness must be wiped from our pop culture memories. Lawsuits were filed and some ten million people were eligible to be reimbursed for their purchases, while still getting to keep the album—an awesome reminder of how they had been lied to. It was clear—it wasn’t Rob and Fab who were the fools, but us, the fans.

When I heard the news, I was on my way to a math class. I choked back tears. How could they do that to me—to us? Blaming it on the rain was not going to cut it this time. In our anger, we would forgive no one. Not Rob, not Fab, not Farian. The hurt was too much.

I went home from school and retreated to my bedroom where I played my favorite tape one last time before tucking it away in a drawer deep within my socks and underwear and Playboy magazines.

There was still some tender scar tissue from the wound, and it pained when I learned that Rob Pilatus died in April 1998; a mere eight months after VH1 returned the duo to our consciousness on the TV series, Behind the Music. His death, deemed an accidental suicide, was a sad epilogue to the tragic Milli Vanilli story. Perhaps it was time to forgive.

Part of me felt responsible for his death. Maybe if we hadn’t been so angry with him, maybe then he wouldn’t have careened headfirst toward that loathsome doom. But no, his distressing descent began the moment he joined Milli Vanilli. Watch the videos on YouTube. You can almost see it in his eyes.

Now, we wonder. What was so wrong with their lip-synching? Prepackaged bands never bothered us before. The Monkees didn’t play on every recording at the beginning of their career, and no one seemed to care about that. What was the big deal if the two guys with the long hair and shoulder pads and thick accents didn’t sing those songs? We had been entertained. And we felt something in that entertainment. Remember, the album went platinum six times.

Today we expect nothing from our pop stars but the glitz and glamour and smoke and mirrors of entertainment. We’ll take it in any form possible. See Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke and other mediocre could-be artists regurgitating tired synth-crap. How different is auto-tuning from lip-synching, anyway? There are no reports of angry fans at Milli Vanilli’s concert where the recording skipped because those in attendance just accepted it as part of the show. Pop performers lip-synch or utilize backing vocals during live performances, so they still sound great while jumping around and dancing and slamming into each other’s chests and twerking. And technical accidents will happen.

So, where’s the problem?

It comes down to this: honesty is subjective in entertainment. These days, we know that reality shows aren’t reality, and we allow auto-tuning as an acceptable way to turn crappy singing into digestible melodicism. We’re OK with this because we’re all in on the joke. We were fine with giving Ashley Simpson a musical career until she did the wrong song on Saturday Night Live. When it comes to pop culture, the emperor can be stark naked—as long as no one points it out.

Milli Vanilli was bare-assed from the start. But we were the ones who were left naked and ashamed when we turned against the very thing we created and convinced ourselves that the truth matters. The fact is that truth has the power to ruin a perfectly good piece of pop culture.

And to break a little kid’s heart.

David Himmel is an author, playwright and editor. His book, A Camp Story (The History Press, 2012) is worth the read and his plays have been funny and performed on a few serious stages. He is the head writer of the web series Greetings! From Prison and managing editor of Chicago Health magazine. David lives in Chicago with a dog and a girlfriend. Himmelink.com.

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