MUSIC

Sound Check: Monitors, Vocal Tracks and Onstage Disasters

What makes live performances so complicated?

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Mariah Carey is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with 5 Grammys, 34 nominations, and over 60 million records sold in the U.S. since her career began in the early 1990s. That kind of popularity and experience also means that she is no stranger to onstage complications. Her performance on Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve last night, with less than twenty minutes left in 2016, quickly became more than a technical complication.

After singing "Auld Lang Syne," she started her hit, "Emotions." But she only got a few lines out before she stopped singing altogether. For the rest of that song and the following, "We Belong Together," she talked sporadically to the audience while her backing track continued without her and the dancers finished their routine. Accusations of lip-synching immediately flew at her from all corners of the internet, and she's clearly guilty in both "Auld Lang Syne" and "We Belong Together."

In "Emotions," it's less clear—there's a lot of blank space that Carey is supposed to be filling with vocals with only a few moments of a backing track that are either there to harmonize with the singer or to help her hit the big notes. Around the 2:36 mark in the video above, after a little, awkward small talk with the audience in front, she says, "Get these monitors on, please."

Carey is undeniably a skilled singer and someone who knows how to carry a show. Just how dependent on technology are these performances, that they can be so easily derailed by technical difficulties?

The monitors that the singer is referring to are the speakers that normally line the front of a stage and aim sound at the performers so that they can hear themselves. They emphasize the vocals and acoustic instruments to project them over the louder, more resonant bass and percussion. When Carey is calling for her monitors to be turned on, she's signaling that she can't hear her own voice.

That's a huge problem that anyone with onstage experience knows well. It's especially problematic for singers, who can't look to a fretboard or keys to visually find the next note, even if they can't hear it. A singer needs to hear the note she's singing to find the following notes, or the whole melody easily wanders off.

The Beatles famously claimed that, during their groundbreaking Shea Stadium concert, they couldn't hear themselves playing over the screaming crowd. Today's shows are louder and bigger and improved technology aims to solve the problem of hearing oneself sing. But with all of the complicated technology involved in a live television broadcast of a live concert in Times Square, it also creates more possibilities for errors.

Carey, at the beginning of her set, was wearing an in-ear monitor—the kind you always see singers pulling out during a TV performance—in addition to the speakers. It works the same way as the onstage monitors, but fits in a performer's ears. Carey pulled the in-ear monitor out almost immediately, and though she might not have been singing all of "Auld Lang Syne" live, she was certainly planning on doing the next song.

But without the monitors, how could she?

The other problem created by malfunctioning monitors is that she couldn't hear her backing track. During "Emotions," her lead vocals were mostly absent. But there were several spots where the backing track played. Whether they were supposed to be harmonies or help for Carey, they were cues that she couldn't hear.

And in the unfortunate cases of the other two songs, it was impossible for her to mouth the words to a pre-recorded track that she couldn't hear. All of this leads to a larger question about the state of music performances and the industry-changing pressures of TV broadcasts: what forces an artist, known worldwide for her stunning voice, to lip-synch her own songs?

Somehow the idea became that the recorded version of a song is the version. In the early days of pop music, before recording was common and distribution was electronic, a song was its live performance and the recording was the edited version that could be carved into vinyl. The real song was live, open to interpretation; the recording was its condensation. Artists today (or the producers of TV specials, more likely) seem obsessed with exactly replicating the recording onstage. They use backing tracks of sound effects, harmonies, and more to achieve the same sound. And, in the most unfortunate cases, some part of the industry system forces a singer to lip-synch to her own, recorded voice.

It's inauthentic and, most importantly, unnecessary. And when it goes wrong, it's an embarrassment that no one wants or needs in their career. Mariah Carey might still be able to hit the notes she did on the recordings from 1995, or she might not. Regardless, she shouldn't have to in a live performance. An artist ought to have the freedom to sing and to improvise, and they can't do any of that when they're locked into a recorded backing track.

Maybe we can start 2017 by looking past an embarrassing technical mistake to whatever deeper problems in the music and TV industry would cause a star singer to lip-synch to her own hits. Maybe we can ask for performance instead of replication.

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