Smirk if you will over Ashlee Simpson’s vocal malfunction on “Saturday Night Live,” but nearly everybody’s getting some performance-enhancing help.

“The most scandalous aspect of this isn’t that one person got caught,” says Spin Magazine’s Dave Itzkoff of Simpson’s flubbed attempt at lip-syncing – after, she says, losing her voice to bad acid reflux. “It’s the fact that it’s so commonly used in pop today.”

In fact, performers from all genres – even among the sacred cows of classic rock – use various devices that do for music what Tuna Helper does for dinner. Stars have a full lazy Susan of cheating techniques at their disposal, from simple “guide vocal” tracks to complete backing tapes.

In many genres, fans rarely expect performers to show up with real bands. Disco divas, R&B singers and rappers often perform what they call “track dates” at clubs. At such events, the star applies a live vocal to music that’s wholly on tape-like high-class karaoke.

Often the reason is economic. Why pay to bring a full group on tour when you’re going to play only a few numbers for a quickie promo in a club?

Hip-hop acts excuse their frugality with history. Since the form began with emcees rapping over recordings, the spare sight of performers with just a deejay – even when employed by acts as esteemed as Outkast – reads less as heresy than tradition.

In the world of video-driven pop stars – from Janet Jackson to Britney Spears – it’s a given that the performers can’t sing and dance hard at the same time. Earlier this month at an awards show, Elton John ridiculed Madonna for cheating her fans by lip-syncing during “live” shows.

What’s less commonly discussed, or accepted, is the rash of enhancements used at rock shows. Even a group as respected as U2 clearly needs synthetic help to boost its three spare musicians.

As Rolling Stone editor Joe Levy explains, “When bands go on tour, they often use anything from an added rhythm track to a keyboard player hidden under the stage. The drummer can trigger samples from his drum kit, the guitarist can hit a pedal that adds a guitar part.

“It’s real Wizard of Oz stuff.”

Levy says this occurs because “people still want to hear something live that sounds like the record. Plenty of rock bands overdub 15 guitar parts in the studio to get that massive sound. Just three guys onstage couldn’t (do it).”

One major music publicist blames “the increasing demands on artists. The more radio shows and interviews that are shoe-horned into their schedules, the less their voices can hit those “money’ high notes.”

But does it really matter to fans?

Industry types are self-conscious enough about this issue that no one from MTV or most record companies would speak about it on the record. Itzkoff says Simpson-gate could scar the singer since she’s trying to sell herself as a singer-songwriter.

But Levy believes music fans should grow up on this issue.

“If people are shocked and disappointed by this, they ought to get a look at what the girls in Playboy look like before they airbrush them,” he says.

“All entertainment involves some kind of enhancement.”



Here are just three of the sonic cheat sheets available to modern pop stars:

GUIDE VOCAL: A prerecorded singing track performers use to make their live vocals sound fuller – and to help keep them on pitch. See: Ashlee Simpson.

TRACK DATE: A club or in-store appearance in which the star sings live to his or her record.

BACKING TAPES: Anything, including an added rhythm track, backing vocal, sonic hook or guitar part, recorded to help live musicians better re-create the sound of a multitrack studio production.


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