Lip-Synching Duo Milli Vanilli Lose Grammy Award Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

One of the most promising pop-music acts of the late 1980’s, Milli Vanilli blended pop, soul, and rap into a unique and successful hybrid. However, the duo, Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, did not actually sing, causing a widespread scandal in the recording industry. The revelation not only caused sales of their album to plummet but also led to the revocation of the group’s coveted 1990 Grammy Award for Best New Artist. A series of consumer lawsuits emerged from the scandal as well. The name “Milli Vanilli” remains associated with lip-synching and fraud in the music industry.

Summary of Event

The origins of pop group Milli Vanilli date back to an early 1988 studio project in Germany under the helm of producer Frank Farian. The initial recordings were cut by a team of professional vocalists and studio musicians, including Charles Shaw, John Davis, Brad Howell, Jodie Rocco, and Linda Rocco. In addition to lacking fame as singers, Farian’s group lacked a marketable appeal, leading him to look for a pair of models capable of dancing and lip-synching to the songs on stage. After meeting Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus at a Berlin dance club, he quickly handed them the keys to the musical project and christened the two Milli Vanilli. [kw]Milli Vanilli Lose Grammy Award, Lip-Synching Duo (Nov. 19, 1990) Milli Vanilli Morvan, Fab Pilatus, Rob Grammy Awards Milli Vanilli Morvan, Fab Pilatus, Rob Grammy Awards [g]United States;Nov. 19, 1990: Lip-Synching Duo Milli Vanilli Lose Grammy Award[02490] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Nov. 19, 1990: Lip-Synching Duo Milli Vanilli Lose Grammy Award[02490] [c]Music and performing arts;Nov. 19, 1990: Lip-Synching Duo Milli Vanilli Lose Grammy Award[02490] [c]Popular culture;Nov. 19, 1990: Lip-Synching Duo Milli Vanilli Lose Grammy Award[02490] [c]Radio and television;Nov. 19, 1990: Lip-Synching Duo Milli Vanilli Lose Grammy Award[02490] Farian, Frank

During the middle of 1988, the group’s debut disc All or Nothing (with Morvan and Pilatus on the cover) was released in Europe, inciting a craze on the dance circuit for the project’s blending of pop, soul, and rap. The attention soon carried over into the United States, resulting in a deal with Arista Records and that album’s new release in 1989 as Girl You Know It’s True. The title track raced up the Billboard Hot 100 (to number 2) and was followed by singles “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” and “Blame It on the Rain.”

Despite the astounding sales figures (which eventually hit the seven-million sales mark in the United States), the group began to face growing skepticism. During a taping of an MTV MTV special in the summer of 1989 in Connecticut, Morvan and Pilatus were “singing” the smash single “Girl You Know It’s True” in concert when their backing track skipped repeatedly, much to the dismay of the performers. Critics picked apart the botched attempt at lip-synching. Another controversy came at the end of 1989, when Shaw claimed the pair did not actually sing on the album. He quickly retracted the claim after allegedly being bribed by Farian.

In either instance, fans did not seem to mind. They continued to purchase Girl You Know It’s True (and all its corresponding singles releases) at a feverish pace, while voting in droves in polls for the American Music Awards (AMA). Milli Vanilli, in 1990, took home awards for Favorite Pop-Rock New Artist, Favorite Soul-R&B New Artist, and Favorite Pop-Rock Single (for “Girl You Know It’s True”). The music industry also took notice of the escalating adoration of the group, giving the duo a Grammy Award in 1990 in the Best New Artist category (beating out the Indigo Girls, Tone-Loc, Soul II Soul, and Neneh Cherry).

Rob Pilatus, left, and Fab Morvan, best-known as the pop duo Milli Vanilli, show off their Grammy Awards in February, 1990. The awards were taken from them after it was revealed Pilatus and Morvan had lip-synched their work.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Given all the additional attention and lightning-fast ride to international fame, Morvan and Pilatus began developing excessive behaviors, including inflated egos and a party-hard mentality, often associated with musicians and other celebrities. Pilatus in particular received scorn for suggesting in an interview with Time Time magazine magazine that Milli Vanilli was in the same elite category of musical innovators as Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. Also, the duo tried to convince Farian that they should sing lead vocals in the studio on the next Milli Vanilli album.

The entertainers’ growing egos, coupled with media speculation, fueled Farian’s increasing frustrations and led to his November 12, 1990, admission that Milli Vanilli consisted of an act of two models who did not sing on the hit album. As expected, reporters jumped on the fraud story and turned the disgraced pop group into international tabloid material. Milli Vanilli faced an even bigger disappointment one week later, on November 19, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which presents the annual Grammy Awards, revoked the duo’s coveted Best New Artist Award, exposing all involved to even more public humiliation. Michael Greene, the academy’s president, said that academy trustees, who voted to revoke the award, “were just livid about the situation.”

Critics came out in full force to condemn the band with insults, also suggesting the prefabrication and subsequent cover-up served as the ultimate mockery of the music industry. Fans also responded negatively to the revelation, immediately ceasing their radio station requests and sending the Girl You Know It’s True album into a sales stall. Arista Records also acted adversely, voiding its recording contract with Milli Vanilli, deleting the CD from its catalog, and forcing the title to go out of production. The album then ranked as the top former-best-selling album to be taken from store shelves.

A flurry of lawsuits, more than two dozen, followed. One of the more famous lawsuits was a class-action suit representing more than one thousand people seeking refunds after purchasing Milli Vanilli albums and singles. The following year, a similar suit was filed in Chicago, followed by several others seeking compensation. On August 28, 1991 (after intense legal wrangling), a settlement allowed those who purchased a record or a concert ticket to be eligible for refunds, as long as claims were filed before March 8, 1992.

Even with the negative publicity, Farian attempted to redeem himself, releasing 1991’s follow-up album The Moment of Truth (recorded before the scandal) by the newly minted The Real Milli Vanilli. Fans in the United States were still indignant at the previous deceit, so the album was released in Europe only. Morvan and Pilatus attempted to clean up their part of the scandal recording as Rob & Fab. They released an album in 1993, but it was a commercial and critical failure.

In early 1998, Morvan and Pilatus tried using the Milli Vanilli name one more time, recording Back and in Attack, but the pair never had the chance to prove itself. On April 2, Pilatus was found dead in a Frankfurt, Germany, hotel room after consuming pills and alcohol. Morvan pursued a solo career, released a solo album, Love Revolution, in 2003, and even had production talks with Universal Pictures for a film about the group’s rocky history. Milli Vanilli: Greatest Hits was released in 2007.

Impact

The ultimate music industry disgrace is being stripped of a Grammy Award. Widely cited as one of the most shocking and embarrassing moments in music history is Milli Vanilli’s loss of its Grammy for fraud. Also, the scandal has been analyzed as an instance of greed at the expense of originality and artistry, and is cited as an example of the significance of marketing to commercial success for a singer or band; some claim that marketability and appeal are more critical than actual musical talent.

Though lip-synching is not new to the music industry, the Milli Vanilli scandal marked the first time the deception was employed on such a massive scale. Lip-synching is generally accepted during televised performances, but the duo crossed an ethical line because “singers” Morvan and Pilatus were not simply lip-synching their own recorded vocals; rather, they claimed to be original singing artists—which they were not—who were lip-synching their own work. Milli Vanilli Morvan, Fab Pilatus, Rob Grammy Awards

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brackett, Nathan, and Christian Hoar, eds. The New Rolling Stone Album Guide. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Includes brief reviews and ratings of Milli Vanilli’s music. Also includes a short biographical synopsis of the duo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, eds. The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. New York: Fireside, 1995. A factual summary and critical assessment of the Milli Vanilli scandal, starting with the group’s rise to fame to its demise.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Torassa, Ulysses. “Suit Seeks Refunds for Ohioans Who Bought Milli Vanilli Album.” Plain Dealer, November 22, 1990. Reports on the initial class-action lawsuit by fans in Ohio who sought refunds for buying a fraudulent album.

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