music on tv – that wasn’t live


** above, Flea from the Chili Peppers took a ton of shit online after it was discovered his bass wasn’t even plugged in to anything during their halftime show.  Flea, as always, was awesome and honest.  He explained they refused to let them play live, so he wasn’t going to fake it by plugging eqp in.

I just want you to know that pretty much no music performance you see on television is live.  Not even Saturday Night Live is often live.  Awards shows?  Not live.  Superbowls and such?  Most definitely not live.  Let’s talk about why.

I should first say, those singing talent shows are live, and those nice people are singing live.  They have to, by law.  This goes back to an old quiz show scandal in the 50s, where they were caught giving the answers to the contestants behind the scenes to make better tv.  BUT… when someone like Jennifer Lopez or Gwen Stefani go up to do their new single… back to pre-recorded every time.  Can’t they sing?  Aren’t they talented, which got them this far?  Yes.  that is why they do it.

Talent is not why music isn’t live on TV.  It is usually for production purposes… so that it sounds perfect.  There are too many variables in a truly live performance that a network doesn’t want to risk.  If you are watching a starlette who dances a LOT as she sings… she most definitely isn’t singing live… and probably never has.  Pink hanging upside down on the those ribbons 3 stories in the air?  Not singing.  For them, it isn’t practical.  Singing takes breath, and complete control of breathe.  And concentration, you can’t do that and ‘jump around onstage like a wounded duck’***

***Kid Rock line


What about Saturday Night Live?  Yup, that is mostly lip syncing.  Here are some obvious cheats to tell, and some subte signs.  If the person singing is really really pretty, she probably isn’t singing.  If they are dancing, they aren’t singing.  If the music sounds well mixed, it isn’t live.  Remember the big Ashlee Simpson scandal, where she was busted cheating live?  The very next week, Eminem did the same… y’all just didn’t notice.

So what is a way to tell?  Watch the throat.  You might think when you see a performance on TV, they really are singing… but perhaps we are hearing the pre-recorded version from rehearsal.  Not true.  You ARE hearing the pre-recorded version from rehearsal, that is true.  The artist you are watching, though, is just moving their lips… not singing.  The reason is so they can better concentrate on the miming, and dance or whatever.  It’s odd, right?  Why am I listening to something they recorded 3 hours ago?  If they could sing it like that 3 hours ago, why don’t they just do that now?  They could, but the producers want to remove any variables.  Plus, it gives them a couple hours to basically Photoshop the performance and punch it up a bit.

Keep in mind an empty venue sounds wildly different than a full one does.  Plus, with adrenaline and nerves, it likely won’t go as well when the cameras roll on live production.


Superbowls – aren’t they live?  Well, this is more complex, but the answer is still mostly no.  I want to believe with all my heart that the Prince one was live.  (editors note:  according to this piece, it absolutely was live.  It’s a good read.)  It was breathtaking.  But… how do you get a performance that good, and that musically perfect, in a deadly rain storm?  Still… I want to think that was live.  In that last Super Bowl, Gaga got props for doing a lot of it live.  That is because Gaga is amazing, and the real deal.  Most of her set was not live, though.  In fact, the opening sequence where she was on top of the stadium… that was done the day before.

The parts where she did actually sing, though?  She did it by practicing her entire set while climbing a stairmaster.  That is so bad ass, and shows she has the work ethic to back up the talent.  It takes both to be a superstar!

Another reason why they aren’t even trying to sing when they are on TV is the mic is ‘hot’.  It is on the whole time.  This is so they can extemporize and say ‘Dallas, this is the greatest night of our lives’.

Even the last two times I saw Zac Brown Band on tv (doing morning shows, out in the street)… it was a sync job.  Makes me sad, as they are all incredible musicians.  It isn’t up to the musicians, for the most part.  It is up to the producer of the show.  The musicians are hired help.  They are also employees of the record company, which is the real reason they are there.


 re Pink: there is no amount of talent or discipline that can allow you to writhe upside down and sing at the same time.  It defies physics and breath

What about the late night tv shows?  I would guesstimate about 70% are not live, real time performances.

Did you know in China it is illegal to lip sync?  They call it ‘miming’ over there, and you can go to jail.  Artists have gotten MUCH better at pretending to sing.  Youtube some old American Bandstand clips.  Historically, on TV, they didn’t even bother to look like it was live.  So, it is really tough to find old good quality live clips.  Here is an example; this is Elton John ‘live’.  He is doing that wonderful and odd masterpiece ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’.  Not only is this not live, it is the studio version.

yet… there is live footage of this song AND this era.  Just gotta dig a little more.  I believe nearly all concerts were live singing until the 80s?  Why?  Well, the technology didn’t really exist until then… AND… that is when style became more important that substance due to MTV.  Here is ‘Yellow Brick’ live… and it’s fantastic.

In closing… ask yourself this.  What about the concert, in person… that I paid $125 for a ticket for.  Is/was/will that be a live performance?  If it is a rock or country band, yes.  If it is pop (or anything with choreography… including rap) probably not.  The tip I give to people is the uglier the performer is, the more likely it is a live performance.

Maynard, from Tool, explained it best.  He has been known to not move for a 2 hour concert… not move from that spot.  He is also an incredible and seriously intense singer.  Someone asked him why he doesn’t move around and engage the crowd… like a front man it supposed to do.  He said “I can either do that, or sing.  I can’t do both, so I choose to sing!”


1 thought on “music on tv – that wasn’t live

  1. Obviously, all of my performances are non-pre-recorded, live vocal renditions. Seeing as I’m an ugly bastard and all.

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