O say, can you sing ... live?

Updated: 2013-03-01 07:01

(China Daily)

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Comment | Mu Qian

Eleven years after Chinese rocker Cui Jian started the "live vocal" movement, he eventually made it to TV, the main vehicle of the lip-syncing that he opposes so much. During the Chinese New Year, Cui performed for the first time at the Spring Festival galas of Beijing, Anhui and Hunan.

Meanwhile, netizens accuse half of the singers at the Spring Festival Gala of China Central Television - by far the country's most popular TV show - of lip-syncing to hundreds of millions of viewers.

Lip-syncing is an open secret in the Chinese music industry, which is dominated by TV.

Mainland singer Sun Nan, Hong Kong singer Alan Tam and Malaysian singer Tan Kheng Seong have all admitted their lip-syncing at the request of CCTV. According to Chinese pop singer Li Chunbo, 99 out of 100 Chinese singers have lip-synced.

Huang Yihe, a retired director of the CCTV gala, once said that using pre-recorded vocals was the norm of the show. Lang Kun, another veteran director of the show, said in 2009 that "live singing is a difficult task for the CCTV gala".

Maybe we shouldn't be too fussy with Chinese lip-syncers, since this is an international phenomenon. For example, Beyonce lip-synced the national anthem of the United States in January during President Barack Obama's inauguration.

Beyonce later admitted at a news conference that she did so "due to the weather, due to the delay, due to no proper sound check". But so far, none of the Chinese singers suspected of lip-syncing at this year's CCTV gala has made any public comment.

Although there is no substantive evidence, nobody would be surprised if lip-syncing really happened at this highly contrived show. Even the applause was planned and prompted by staff hidden in the audience.

More serious is lip-synching that happens at live concerts, which is not rare in China, especially those that involve multiple artists. Many such concerts are directed and produced by TV people and are plagued with the same problem.

For Chinese gala directors, it is justifiable to use lip-syncing if that helps to achieve better effects. That's why the lip-syncing at the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympic Games, considered a scandal internationally, is more or less accepted as something natural in China: Lin Miaoke has a better appearance while Yang Peiyi has a better voice, so why not combine the two to create a perfect show?

The idea of a "perfect show" has its root in our culture, as Chinese artists have long venerated the dogma of seeing art as something "from life but higher than life". We have been indoctrinated with the idea that art ought to be aesthetic, with all rough elements eliminated.

The many volunteer performers at the opening ceremony of London Olympic Games, who had neither perfect shapes nor unified movements, would never have appeared at the Beijing Olympic Games, because they are too inartistic for the Chinese.

In this context, lip-syncing doesn't seem to be something outrageous, especially for the CCTV gala that has become more of a ritual.

China's dubbing industry has also prepared us for lip-syncing. Before the 1990s, all international films and TV dramas were dubbed when played in China. Sometimes, even Chinese films and TV dramas were dubbed by professionals when the actors' own voices were deemed less than perfect.

Compare the Chinese dubbing of international films and their original soundtracks, and you will get not only two languages but also two different feelings. The Chinese dubbing sound more polished. The original, while maybe not as euphonic, is more spontaneous.

This is parallel to the comparison between pre-recorded and live vocals. Nowadays, more Chinese people prefer to watch subtitled international films with original soundtracks. Meanwhile, people are not satisfied with lip-syncing performances but demand real singing.

Maybe some people don't care whether their idols lip-synch as long as they see them onstage. But, first of all, the public has the right to know what they are getting, especially when they pay to see a performance.

"Lip-syncing provides low-quality spiritual consumption while the public does not know the truth. This is immoral, unfair and fraudulent," declares the announcement of the Live Vocal movement, which Cui started.

It's a question, he says, of awakening citizens to their personal rights.

Contact the writer at muqian@chinadaily.com.cn.