There are scandals in the pop music world, and then there's Milli Vanilli, a musical duo made up of Fabrice Morvan and Rob Pilatus (listed in the liner notes of their hit record Girl You Know It's True as "Rob & Fab, The Brothers Of Soul"). Milli Vanilli were one of the most promising young pop acts of their time, and released the singles "Girl You Know It's True," "Baby Don't Forget My Number" and "Blame It On The Rain," to major success. However, their tenure on the charts ended abruptly when it was discovered that Rob & Fab were not only lip synching their songs, but never actually sung the tracks on record.
Producer Frank Farian, formerly the songwriter behind Boney M, had been a producer for some time after, and sought to create a group that combined pop music with hip hop. The studio musicians he assembled were musically up to par, but the vocalists - Charles Shaw, John Davis, Brad Howell, and twin sisters Jodie and Linda Rocco - didn't seem to fit any sort of marketable image. In what was a common practice in Farian's time - Boney M was fronted by Bobby Farrell but the vocals were usually sung by Farian, Marcia Barrett and Liz Mitchell - Farian hired Fabrice "Fab" Morvan and Rob Pilatus, two models and aspiring singers he found in a Munich dance club to serve as the frontmen for the band, tempting them with a large advance, and then informing them that they were going to lip sync all the music in public. The pair, already signed and having no way to pay back the advance, reluctantly agreed.
The debut, All Or Nothing (1988) set the tone for their output, with Europop music informed by Hip-Hop and Funk. Arista Records, liking what they heard, snapped them up for a North American release. Leaving some songs behind, some new songs were added and the track list was shuffled into a new album, titled Girl You Know It's True. This album went six times platinum, and the title track became their Signature Song.
In late 1989, the image showed the first sign of crumbling when Rob & Fab were caught lip synching at a performance in Bristol, Connecticut. A performance of "Girl You Know It's True" stumbled when the recording skipped ("Girl you know it's- Girl you know it's- Girl you know it's- Girl you know it's- Girl you know it's-"). This was made worse by the fact that the whole thing was caught by MTV cameras. This didn't seem to divert their success, as in February of 1990, they won a Grammy for Best New Artist.
Charles Shaw, one of the real vocalists in the actual Milli Vanilli band, actually spoke out at one point that he had sung on the album and that Rob & Fab were frauds, but Frank Farian paid him $150,000 to retract the statements and keep quiet. Rob Pilatus by this time was making cocky statements to magazines such as "I'm the new Elvis" and the two were increasingly pressuring Farian to let them record actual vocals on the next Milli Vanilli album. Having had enough of all the pressures, Farian finally confessed on November 12, 1990, that the duo did not, in fact, sing any of the Milli Vanilli material. To say that there was a backlash would be, uh... putting it pretty mildly.
Rob & Fab returned their Best New Artist Grammy, a class-action lawsuit was filed, and Arista Records responded to the media backlash by dropping Milli Vanilli from their roster and deleting their music from their archives, effectively putting their music out of print. Refunds were even issued to concertgoers and record buyers.
The group's second album was eventually released in Europe and Asia under the title The Moment of Truth, credited to "The Real Milli Vanilli." It had been edited from its original intended form to incorporate Ray Horton and Gina Mohammed, two younger, more "marketable" singers who simply re-recorded material already completed by the actual original band members or sang along with them on finished tracks. They were incorrectly credited at many points on the album, but they did at least sing. Mohammed was falsely and retroactively given credit for the Rocco twins' vocals on the first album in order to further "legitimize" the new group. While the first single from the album was a hit in some countries, the group failed to maintain the success of its Rob & Fab-fronted incarnation.
After three years of vocal lessons, Rob & Fab, under that name, released a self-titled album and even appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show to perform their lead single ACTUALLY live. The public, however, was done with the whole thing, and the album sold somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 copies, going almost immediately out of print. In the late 90s, Rob, Farian and the original band reconciled in order to put out a comeback album in 1998, minus Fab, who wanted nothing more to do with Farian. Rob Pilatus, after having fallen on hard times, abusing drugs and even committing robberies, was found dead of an alcohol and prescription pill overdose on April 2, 1998. He was 32 years old.
Milli Vanilli provides examples of:
- The Band Minus The Faces:
- The Real Milli Vanilli, allegedly. In fact; it was that plus a few new pretty faces who hadn't been on the first album at all, but were shown more prominently in marketing material.
- This was also the case with the aborted comeback album. Rob, who had fallen the hardest out of the two, willingly agreed to join Farian again, while Fab wanted nothing to do with the man who had ruined his career.
- Broke the Rating Scale: Beavis And Butthead once flipped to one of Milli Vanilli's videos, to which they had the rare response of staring in horror, unable to make any of their trademark wisecracks, and then changed the channel.
- Brainless Beauty: The only reason Rob and Fab didn't just quit when they were told they'd be miming already recorded songs, was because they'd already spent most of their several thousand dollar advances on hair products.
- Broken Record: "Girl you know it's- Girl you know it's- Girl you know it's-"
- Clumsy Copyright Censorship: Hoo boy. They made an appearance on The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 as the Princess' favorite pop group, but after the scandal, their performance was overdubbed by an instrumental piece, rendering the cartoon Rob & Fab voiceless over the new music. Oddly appropriate, isn't it?
- Cover Version: Of Deep Purple's "Hush" of all songs. They also covered the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing" and Boney M's "Ma Baker." Before signing with Farian, they were locally known in Germany for doing Michael Jackson covers.
- Cursed with Awesome / Blessed with Suck: In an interview for their edition of Vh-1's Behind the Music, Rob speculated that both the pressure of keeping up the charade and the resulting backlash after the secret was out would not have been so extreme if they hadn't won "the goddamn Grammy" for Best New Artist.
- Determinator: Fabrice Morvan, to this day, is still pursuing pop stardom on his own terms - yes, over two decades later - and even released a new single in 2012.
- Downer Ending: The Milli Vanilli story didn't end well for anyone, especially Rob Pilatus who died of a drug overdose at the age of 32. Fabrice fared a little better and still performs but he hasn't managed to reach anywhere near the level of success the duo had at its height.
- Foreshadowing: At the beginning of July 1989 they released Girl I'm Gonna Miss You which contained the line "It's a tragedy for me to see the dream is over''... three weeks later, the dream really was over
- Going Cold Turkey: Rob & Fab were no strangers to drugs before the scandal blew up, and it only got worse once it did. When the time came to record their self-titled album, Fab had managed to go cold turkey, but Rob would never recover, and eventually died from a drug overdose.
- Greatest Hits Album: Yes, they have one (released in 2006), although it contains a remixed version of "Girl You Know It's True."
- The Invisible Band: A particularly infamous example.
- Mohs Scale of Lyrical Hardness: 2.
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Very 2.
- New Jack Swing: One of the genre's defining artists in the late 80s, before the scandal broke. Fun fact: Girl You Know It's True was on course for beating Bobby Brown's record for best-selling new jack swing album before everything imploded.
- Oh, Crap!: The duo fled the stage when the record started skipping and they realized their cover was blown.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis: Nowadays they are better remembered for the playback scandal than for their actual music.
- Red Baron: "Rob & Fab: The Brothers Of Soul."
- Repetitive Audio Glitch: One of the most infamous in history; this was the point when people started to catch on to the fraud.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!:
- The duo ended up fleeing the stage after they were caught lip-syncing to "Girl You Know It's True" while in Bristol, Connecticut.
- According to Fab, he and Rob attempted to pull this on Frank Farian twice. The first time, they simply refused to lip-sync the songs, but caved when Farian said they had to pay him back the advances he gave them. The second time, they tried to break away from Farian's control and do their own thing, prompting Farian to expose them as frauds.
- Self-Deprecation: "How long? 'Til these guys sing for themselves!"
- Shout-Out: The group's name is a play-off of sophistopop band Scritti Politti.
- Silly Love Songs: Love songs don't get much sillier than Milli Vanilli.
- Singing Voice Dissonance: Many people noticed even before the big reveal that Rob & Fob spoke in broken, heavily-accented English yet seemed to sing and rap in perfect American English. This was obviously explained when it came out the singing voices they lipsynched to actually belonged to American-born musicians.
- That Syncing Feeling:
- When the record began to skip during their 1989 MTV concert, Milli Vanilli knew the gig was up.
- It's worth mentioning that there were those who just dismissed it at the time as merely an embarrassing moment caught live; MTV's "Downtown" Julie Brown, reflecting on it years later, mentioned that it was somewhat of a common practice at the time for artists to lipsync to their own prerecorded singing (a "guide track"), especially if they were dancing around during their performance, rather than run the risk of ending up too out of breath to sing effectively (key words here being their own singing...).
- There Are No Good Executives: Frank Farian and Clive Davis. While he avoids outright saying negative about Davis, Fab mentioned in an interview that Davis was fully aware of the lip-syncing, but went along with it.
- Fab Morvan: If a pen dropped in the building, he knew. [...] I don't know the details behind that, you see. That's one of the things that's been kept really, really, really secret. [...] But they had to disclose that to him.
- We Don't Suck Anymore: Attempted with their appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, when they sang the new song "We Can Get It On" by themselves. They did indeed sing it... but their nervous, unpolished vocals (with a little Vocal Range Exceeded on Fab's part) impressed nobody, and the subsequent album failed miserably. To his credit, Arsenio famously stated that he told the directors to shoot their musical sequence as incredibly as possible, stating that it'd be really cool if Milli Vanilli made a comeback.
- Wham Line: "Girl, you know it's- Girl, you know it's- Girl, you know it's- Girl, you know it's- Girl, you know it's-"
- Your Normal Is Our Taboo: An oft-forgotten part of this whole mess was that having frontmen who simply acted as the Face of the Band but contributed nothing more than their looks was quite common in Europe. Not crediting the actual band, however, was quite something else. Namely, it wasn't an issue until the American repackaging of their first album outright lied and named Rob and Fab as the only two singers.