As far as the public knows, no one has quite tried to “pull something like this again,” if “this” means “drastically lying in liner notes and publicity about the provenance of hit songs.” But Milli Vanilli’s influence is a bit counterintuitive: Their fall from stardom presaged more artifice in pop, not less. In his recent book The Song Machine, John Seabrook details the complex, well-funded apparatus of songwriters and producers and executives who mint most pop songs these days, an apparatus that isn’t hidden from listeners but is also not fully understood by most of them. The system in part has its roots in the work of Lou Pearlman, the now-incarcerated entrepreneur who assembled the Backstreet Boys after witnessing the backlashes to Milli Vanilli and New Kids on the Block—backlashes that were both rooted in the idea that talentless people were lying about being talented. According to Seabrook, “Pearlman wondered what an urban-sounding group of five white boys who really could sing might do in the marketplace.”
130 million records sold later, we have an answer. It’s not often appreciated that a core part of the appeal of the Backstreet Boys—and the other boy bands that followed, some also managed by Pearlman—was that its members really could sing. These teenagers, brought together by newspaper ads to wiggle in CGI videos to songs written by Swedish studio pros, were positioned as a more “authentic” alternative to the likes of Milli Vanilli. Which puts a pretty fine point on what a shell game authenticity can be. Today, autotune is everywhere, producers spend hours “comping” vocals (i.e. piecing together the very best syllables out of dozens of takes), and the Backstreet Boys songwriter Max Martin has nearly as many No. 1 hits as the Beatles.
None of this is a secret. For members of the public still subscribing to the idea that musical merit should be connected to natural musical ability, vocal prowess is often the saving grace, the exonerating factor, that lets them enjoy many of the slickest acts working today. It is essential to the myth of One Direction, for example, that they have verified pipes, that they were generated from a talent contest. Lady Gaga, whose shtick parodies and embraces the insane fakeness of pop, is often praised because she “really can sing.” Or think about what sets Adele apart: She uses many of the same songwriters as the rest of Top 40—Max Martin’s on 25—but she sells more in large part because of how she belts. Morvan and Pilatus didn’t have the fig leaf of vocal talent to protect them once the provenance of their music became clear. But the songs they fronted were as undeniably catchy—if saccharine, over-earnest, cheesy—as they were before the ruse was up.
Saccharine, over-earnest and cheesy also describes the songs of The Beatles, particularly their earlier songs--the Beatles may be thought of as the most enduring example of what can happen when a boy band is full of young guys who can sing and write their own stuff and aspire to do as much as they can manage with it. The Beatles managed to transcend the straitjacket of a more or less boy band beginning.
And perhaps in spite of the things we might like to tell ourselves, we're never entirely over affection for art that is saccharine, over-earnest, even cheesy so long as we can be persuaded that it is thoroughly sincere. Some words drip and ooze with such unrestrained sentiment we can scarcely help wanting to believe the words could only be said in earnest, eh?