blame it on the shame

The media love anniversaries.

That will become all too clear in a few days, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the death of JFK. Meanwhile, America is gearing up for celebrations early next year of the 50th anniversary of Beatlemania in North America. Of course, Canadians know Beatlemania actually arrived on this continent in late 1963, weeks before Americans got the urge to hold the group’s collective hand — but that’s our little secret. Meanwhile, the year has seen events and celebrations to mark 50 years since the March on Washington, 40 years since Billie Jean King walloped Bobby Riggs, 100 years of Stravinsky’s seminal Rite of Spring and of course the 200th anniversary of the War of 1813.

Yet even as media have been quick to jump on nostalgic bandwagons given the opportunity, we have in recent years seen some anniversaries go unfairly neglected. Strange, as it’s not like media to miss a chance to dwell on the past rather than focus on the present. However, where were the celebrations in honour of the 40th anniversary of the Toronto Peace Festival three years ago? Who can forget that historic event, headlined by Elvis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and presided over by John and Yoko, who blew everyone’s mind by arriving at the site via levitation?

You say that never happened? Excuse me, but I can point to several contemporary public pronouncements by John and Yoko that it would indeed happen. And if you’re trying to tell me John and Yoko were not as good as their word, or had a relatively short collective attention span when it came to following those words with actions, I’m going to have to ask you to step outside, sir. Or madam. You don’t remember the Toronto Peace Festival? That’s ’cause you weren’t there, man! No one was. But it happened.

We also missed the 10th anniversary of Freshfest, the local event without which Bluesfest may well have remained a blues festival. I have fond memories of that event, not just for performances by The Roots (with, as I recall, a stupidly long drum solo) and P-Funk, but mostly for the unlimited beer supply foolishly offered to Werbo and other performers and shared with the likes of this music and beer lover. I, uh, don’t recall much else about the two-day event. Other than that it somehow lost money. And was never spoken of again.

Which brings me to one sadly overlooked anniversary that is upon us at this very moment.

Come with me now as we star-fade back to November 1988, and to Munich, in a country then known as West Germany. Producer Frank Farian, the mastermind behind Boney M, introduced the world to a pair of models, dancers and singers (in that order) via an album called All of Nothing. Upon hearing the new Euro sensation, a savvy A&R dude at Clive Davis’s Arista Records — home of The Kinks, Patti Smith and The Muppets — wasted little time in signing the duo, retooling the album and sharing its magnificence with the world under a new title: Girl You Know It’s True. Five top-5 singles and a Grammy later, the whole world knew Milli Vanilli. Or, at least, thought they knew them. Certainly, spotting Rob and Fab in a crowd was not difficult — even in the late-’80s.

It was a genuine pop music phenomenon. And it all began 25 years ago this month. Yet, Milli Vanilli is today an act whose name the music biz dares not speak. See, Rob and Fab — or, at least, Frank — made a mockery of the very serious business that is show. Laying waste to pretenders like Prince and Madonna, the Vanillis were seen as the future of popular music. So much so, in fact, that the 1990 Grammy Awards did not hesitate to honour the duo with the trophy for Best New Artist. That was in recognition of Milli Vanilli’s having owned the airwaves in 1989, a year that had also seen debut albums by De La Soul, The Stone Roses, Nine Inch Nails, Daniel Lanois, The Offspring, Gang Starr, Gin Blossoms and a trio named Nirvana. In their wisdom, the arbiters of taste that are members of the Grammy awards committee reasoned that the artist most likely to succeed was Milli Vanilli.

Hell, even Skid Row would have been a better choice.

Alas, Milli Vanilli did not hold up its end of the deal, in that not only did best new artist Milli Vanilli fail to live up to the “promise” of Girl You Know It’s True, but it also failed to live up to the promise of being Milli Vanilli. Embarrassed, the Grammy suits reacted in the only way they felt they could: by stripping the lip-synching male models of their glory. Sure, Girl You Know It’s True had sounded like the awesomest debut album ever, but not if it’s just a bunch of session players and singers. I mean, we’re talking about the Best New Artist Grammy, dammit! The prestigious award that over the years has recognized the greatness and potential for greatness of such honourees as The Starland Vocal Band, Evanescence and Men At Work. It’s not something given out to someone who just, you know, flukes a few hit singles.

So 25 years after the duo’s arrival into a particularly gullible music scene, do Rob and Fab deserve to be revisited? Celebrated?

No doubt. (No, they didn’t win. They lost to LeeAnn Rimes.)

For what is Milli Vanilli but an artist that brought to light all the sorry things we’ve all suspected are integral to the music industry? Arguably, the pair paved the way for many of today’s pre-fab pop stars. Can’t play an instrument? No worries; we’ve already completed the backing tracks. Can’t sing? Meet autotune. Now, let’s proceed with those modeling and dancing lessons.

Milli Vanilli. All that is false in a pretty false industry, wrapped up in one happily-duped duo.

This should never have been condemned by a hypocritical business. It should have been celebrated. It should be celebrated today. Return their Grammies? They should have been given a lifetime achievement award! At the very least, they should have been given some sort of special citation for revealing the Grammies’ distinct lack of clothing. Besides, what about their not having performed on what was then deemed a first-rate recording disqualified Rob and Fab from claiming the title of best new artist? Still the artist, folks.

They earned their award. And they did it all without autotune. Can 2013 Best New Artist fun. say that? I thought not.

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