I’m old enough to remember that back in the 90s, you could go and see a pop act at the peak of their career for about £25 at an arena or a stadium. I remember getting tickets to see the Spice Girls on their debut headline ‘Spiceworld’ tour in 1998, and at the time, £25 felt incredibly expensive, but it was my first pop concert and I couldn’t wait to see them. Despite their critics, the girls sang live with the help of some pre-recorded backing vocals and they put on a show I’ve not forgotten to this day.
Fast-forward to 2023 and the average cost of an arena concert is around the £60-£75 mark for semi-decent tickets with some acts charging in excess of £100 for a single ticket. Take Madonna’s current tour, ‘The Celebration Tour’, where tickets were going for more than £200 a ticket (with VIP packages going for hundreds more) if you wanted any chance of being able to see more than the Queen of Pop on a video screen. With that in mind, you’d expect to be totally blown away by both the production values of an arena show and you’d expect the performer(s) to sing live, wouldn’t you?
In the past two weeks, two high-profile tours have kicked off; S Club’s much-anticipated ‘Good Times’ tour and Madonna’s already mentioned ‘The Celebration Tour’. Now I’ll admit, I haven’t actually attended either but as they are shows I would have liked to see I’ve delved into the fan footage that’s made its way onto social media. Fans of both acts have been alleging on social media that parts of the shows are mimed while The Guardian, in their review, out-right stated that a backing track did the majority of heavy lifting during S Club’s opening night in Manchester. Take a look at this clip of S Club recently and see what you think:
From what I can tell, there are parts where the band is miming to pre-record live vocals (this is a technique that some artists use so the vocals sound different to the original record to convince fans they are singing live). A look through various clips shows that band members Jo O’Meara, Bradley McIntosh and Jon Lee may sing some vocals live but it doesn’t look like any of the backing vocals and harmonies are, which is a bit disappointing. Similarly, Madonna has been accused of miming by fans but her case looks slightly different with backing tracks and live vocals interweaving throughout the performance. I spotted this video of her performing ‘Bad Girl’ and at around the 2:26 mark, her mouth is closed and the mic away from her mouth yet her voice is ringing out:
I have seen other videos from the tour though where she is quite clearly singing so it seems there’s more of a smoke and mirrors situation going on. Videos of Madonna performing ‘Mother and Father’, and a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ are mostly definitely live. Of course, the show itself looks spectacular and the setlist is near faultless, and given the year the Queen of Pop has had with her health it’s amazing she’s even on tour. Still, you just have to look at the comments on most of these videos to see that fans who were there aren’t even sure if the show was totally live.
Miming in pop music is no new thing. Britney Spears has been notorious throughout her career for miming entire concerts. I’m pretty sure the last time she sang a note live was during ‘The Onyx Hotel’ tour when she sang ‘Everytime’ but every single tour since has been pure playback. I’ve not had chance to pick up her new book yet but I do wonder if she addresses that at all. Sometimes there are logistical reasons for miming too. If an artist is dashing in and out of a TV performance, they may not have time to soundcheck so miming is a better option. Similarly it can be hard to get consistent great live vocals from shows where multiple artists perform on the same stage throughout a day.
While I don’t know definitively that S Club or Madonna mimed, from the evidence I’ve seen it does look likely that parts of both shows are mimed. Given the huge cost of tickets these days, it feels like a kick in the teeth for fans if an artist does decide to mime for any part of a ‘live’ show. I should also say, not all current pop artists face miming accusations. Olivia Rodrigo wowed fans during her ‘SOUR’ tour and she proved that she can more than live up to the hype. See for yourself:
The pop world is full of tricks and artists have been miming for as long as pop music has existed but it does feel like that might be creeping ever more into the ‘live’ arena. I don’t know about you, but if I pay my money for a ticket to a show, I expect the whole thing to be live. I’d rather it was a real experience and not 100% perfect than watch a performer trying to pass off pre-recorded vocals as live. Of course, backing tracks are sometimes necessary, and aid the performer during the more gruelling parts of a performance, but I can’t think of any other profession where’d you get away with charging people money but not giving them the service they’ve paid for.