Conversely, being videogenic has made many careers. Grace Jones was a model before taking to the mic. Madonna became the original video diva, her career kicking off and growing up alongside MTV and the “video revolution”; her videogenic appearance has allowed her to slip in and out of personas. Paula Abdul was a dancer and choreographer before releasing a slew of hit records.
Some years back, on the strength of her kinetic video personality, Abdul was hired to do a commercial for Diet Pepsi. When the ad came on the radio one afternoon as we were driving, my wife asked me, “What is that on her voice?”
“What is what?”
“Her voice. It never sounds natural.”
“Ah, that’s called gated reverb. It gives her voice more presence in the mix.”
“In other words, she really can’t sing.”
“Then why is she such a big star?”
The answer, of course, is that she looked so good on MTV, and was packaged so well.
Some artists took this audio manipulation to the extreme. The actual voice of the dance groups C&C Music Factory and Black Box was Martha Wash, one of the Two Tons of Fun/Weather Girls and a studio vocalist of some note. Although Wash’s soulful alto rattled the walls of dance halls and rang out of radios everywhere, commanding “Everybody Dance Now,” the slimmer Zelma Davis lip-synced the lines in the group’s videos.
Milli Vanilli was a group made for video in the same way that the Monkees were made for TV. The main difference is that all of the members of the Monkees could, to one degree or another, sing. After Milli Vanilli won a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1990, it was revealed that neither of the two fronting members of the group had that skill. They were forced to give the award back. The scandal eventually drove one member of the duo to suicide. This obsession with appearance is not solely an issue in popular music. Opera singer Deborah Voigt claimed that she was dismissed from a production at the Royal Opera House in London because of her weight. Conversely, young, photogenic Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti got a one-million-pound contract from venerable classical label Deutsche Grammophon at the age of 17. Said Welsh broadcaster and singer Beverley Humphries:
I’m very uncomfortable with the way that we’ve gone down the avenue of believing, or being led to believe that physical image is more important than talent. It takes years of working on your instrument to become a great musician. The danger of singers and musicians being taken up because they look good – and making them an immediate, overnight success – is that it demeans and reduced the true greatness of performers.