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How do bad performances happen to good producers?
February 3, 2010 8:05 AM   Subscribe

Occasionally you'll see a big budget TV musical production where the performance is objectively poor -- the singer is bad at lip synching, for example, or perhaps might even be considered a tad "off-key." My question is, how is this allowed to happen?

I'm not talking about the performer showing up drunk, or spontaneously doing something crazy on stage that the producers have no control over. I'm also not talking about acts where sloppy is part of the appeal. I'm talking about supposedly polished pop acts, where it was probably bad in rehearsals, and we're going to put this on the Grammys or SNL knowing there's a good chance it's going to suck out loud. With all the professional and technical muscle behind an A-list performer, what's the thought process? Are the producers just shrugging and hoping nobody notices? Does the performer think everything's A-OK and nobody's got the stones to tell him/her?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Even top-notch rehearsals are no iron-clad guarantee of a spotless performance. Even in cases where you've rehearsed something to death and have also had a lot of really good performances, there's always an "off night" for everyone.

So what you're seeing may not be a case of "oh god, the rehearsals suck but we can't tell them not to go on." It may be a case of "....Huh, Taylor Swift just had an off night. Well, that's the breaks, I guess."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:07 AM on February 3, 2010


Sometimes people have a bad night.

Swift was fine singing live on SNL.
posted by mpbx at 8:11 AM on February 3, 2010


Having Taylor Swift on the televised broadcast (and ad campaign leading up to it) outweighed the importance of having her be good. She performed poorly, but I'm sure that she drew more viewers to the broadcast, which is more important for the network and Grammy committee.

Plus a last minute change-up or technical difficulty might have changed the way she originally intended to perform, causing her to do it on the fly. Something she's obviously not skilled enough (yet?) to do well. Something as simple as the performer's monitor not working right can also throw her off her game, and if she lacks the experience, that could be more than enough to cause the whole thing to go South.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 8:14 AM on February 3, 2010


Swift is young and doesn't have the pipes or the experience Nicks does. At least she's not autotuning her live performance. I'd rather see somebody honestly fail that robotically succeed.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:17 AM on February 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


It really depends on the situation, there was a famous example of Britney Spears performing horribly at I believe an MTV Awards show where it's rumored MTV knew she was going to be terrible but they let it happen because of the publicity it would garner.
posted by haveanicesummer at 8:24 AM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


The first paragraph of this suggests it's the latter.
posted by cali59 at 8:38 AM on February 3, 2010


I heard Dolly Parton talking about a time when she and another performer were doing a duet and due to some technical malfuntion (earpieces?) they couldn't hear themselves. Or rather could only hear each other, and not the band. She said they thought they sounded great together, but they were in a slightly different key than the band. I remember seeing Meatloaf on SNL sing an entire song in a different key than the band - apparently for the same reason. It was awful.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:45 AM on February 3, 2010


Something as simple as the performer's monitor not working right can also throw her off her game, and if she lacks the experience, that could be more than enough to cause the whole thing to go South.

This. Heck, even great performers, when playing in heavily amplified circumstances, need to rely on the monitor to hear themselves.

Ever tried to sing on key without being able to hear yourself? It's really, really hard.
posted by desuetude at 9:30 AM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Talent is not in the same universe as fame.
posted by cmoj at 10:18 AM on February 3, 2010


My guess is that you are not a musician. Performing is not something that you practice until you get good at, and from then on you are going to be good every time. The logistics of a performance on any scale other than sitting in a small room with an acoustic guitarmake a huge difference. You can rehearse and sound fine on a stage, but if during the performance the monitor levels are tweaked even a little bit, it may be impossible to hear what you are doing, or hear the parts you are supposed to be in tune with, and that can cause all sorts of problems.

Imagine trying to cook at home, and then being brought into a different kitchen with different tools, and told to cook. Then imagine you are told you can't taste the food as you go. This is comperable to a regular setup that a musician might face. If there was any sort of technical difficulty, it would be like asking a cook to do all of the above, but also to use ingredients they had never used before. In these cases, luck is a big factor.
posted by markblasco at 10:33 AM on February 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


Are the producers just shrugging and hoping nobody notices?

plenty of people aren't going to notice, or anyway aren't going to care... if they think it sounds a little off they'll think it just "sounds different live." I don't know if I'm tone deaf or just not musically trained, but if you hadn't said anything, it wouldn't have occurred to me that this was objectively poor in any important way. Certainly not like a ballerina tripping on stage, or an actor forgetting a line or something. (I know my brother used to tease me for listening to bands whose singers always sing off-key though, and I never knew - just liked their voices...)
posted by mdn at 10:49 AM on February 3, 2010


Imagine trying to cook at home, and then being brought into a different kitchen with different tools, and told to cook. Then imagine you are told you can't taste the food as you go. This is comperable to a regular setup that a musician might face. If there was any sort of technical difficulty, it would be like asking a cook to do all of the above, but also to use ingredients they had never used before.

I was going to put it a little bit differently, but still use a kitchen metaphor: It's like making a souffle blindfolded. The difference between measuring ingredients precisely and carefully controlling the baking is the difference between the sublime dessert and a mediocre mess.
posted by desuetude at 11:32 AM on February 3, 2010


i can't believe the taylor swift performance is here (albeit, not the best performance) and not the t-pain performance.

for another example of this look at most of the guest spots on american idol and dancing with the stars (on dwts last year mariah carey kept everyone there rehearsing long into the night and still sucked it up the next day). i'm always surprised that on a show supposedly about singing (american idol) so many famous musicians can get up on the stage and lip sync poorly.
posted by nadawi at 11:48 AM on February 3, 2010


For Swift in particular, I have it on somewhat good authority from some people in the country music industry that her father poured tons of money into making her album and promoting her -- think in the millions. I'd heard from those people that she's actually a pretty bad singer, and from the few live performances I've seen -- like the one you linked -- that's been proven true again and again. I've never seen her perform something live that wasn't painfully off-key. So to answer your question, Swift is subpar singer but there was enough money behind her, and her recordings were popular enough that she got the opportunity to sing at the Grammy's. Even though they probably knew she was going to be bad they're not going to turn that down, but there probably wasn't a great way to improve how she sounded; trying to have her lip sync while Nicks sang live might have been too obvious or problematic. In short, she was going to have to go out there and just do whatever she could, which turned out to be crappy.

As a singer myself, I disagree very much with the "not enough live experience" and "sometimes you can't hear yourself" stuff upthread. There is nothing magically different about singing something live if you can sing it to record it without lots of digital help, unless you're not that good a singer or you get overwhelming nerves. Since Swift has the other parts of performing down pretty well, it doesn't seem like nerves to me. I've seen this excuse made for bad singers constantly, even when many people sing on the same stage on the same night using the same equipment and only a couple are bad. It's true that the conditions for being able to hear yourself vary, but the stage doesn't transform into a vacuum when someone opens their mouth. Any responsible singer will have practiced the song beforehand and will at least know what it feels like to sing it correctly. When you can't hear yourself it can be difficult to tell whether your tone is meshing well with the audio, or if you're singing too loud or too quietly, but getting the notes right is really basic stuff regardless; you should be able to sing it a capella with your hands over your ears once you've sang it enough with the backing. This doesn't require perfect pitch either, or anything like it. Whether someone can do that in most conditions or only in limited ideal conditions is a difference in talent because it's something you develop after tons of practice, but the practice doesn't need to be live -- it's just general singing practice.

There are various reasons someone might have a bad night, but usually if they're any good normally they know they're doing poorly, and they're not consistently bad live. Don't listen to excuses for Taylor Swift, is what I'm saying. One can argue that there's more to being a performer and being successful than raw singing ability and I would actually agree with that, and I do like some things about Taylor Swift in particular, but it doesn't then follow that because Swift has redeeming talents as a performer she's actually secretly a good singer too. Swift's performance sucked because Swift is a mediocre singer and it can't be covered up all the time. I'm sure in rehearsals it sounded weak too but there's nothing that could have been done for it; when someone can't get the notes right you can't just say, "Hey, could you suddenly learn to sing on-key, like in time for the Grammys?" I have known a handful of people that were tone deaf when they first started trying to sing and they eventually got to be really good. However, the process takes years when the person has trouble with singing on-key. If Swift's problem was her tone instead, or there was a note that was a tad too high or too low for her to sing, a few weeks of serious practice might have made a difference.
posted by Nattie at 6:09 PM on February 5, 2010


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