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On This Day in History: November 16
Milli Vanilli loses their Grammy Award
Girl you know it’s true they didn’t sing a fucking note on that album. Poor Milli Vanilli. They were born in the wrong century. They could have been open about their lip syncing nowadays and made it big on FaceTok. But in 1990, when it was revealed they weren’t the voices behind their hit debut album, it cost them their Grammy Award, and much more.
--On This Day in History Shit Went Down: November 16, 1990--
It’s all Frank Farian’s fault, and he’d done it before with Boney M. You know that “Rasputin” song? The male member of the band for live performances, Bobby Farrell, didn’t sing any of the songs the band recorded. It was Farian’s voice on the albums. But Farian is white and even in his youth resembled one of those hobbits who was waiting for Bilbo to die so they could inherit his wealth. Farian didn’t have the star factor, so he put Farrell, a tall and attractive Black man, forward as part of the disco funk group that created earworms and popularized myths about a Russian mystic in equal measure.
The song is in your head now, isn’t it? My bad.
Anyfuckingway, the disco success of Boney M in the late 70s convinced Farian that image was at least as important as vocal quality, and it worked for him once, so he did it again with Milli Vanilli. Brad Howell, John David, and Charles Shaw could sing, but they weren’t ridiculously pretty. Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus could dance, and they looked mighty fine while doing it. Alas, their singing ability was not so stellar.
No problem, said Farian. I’ll just merge them and have the pretty boys pretend to be the voices of the average-looking singing dudes. He got away with it for Boney M, so no reason not to do it again.
Milli Vanilli got its start in Europe. Farian and Pilatus are German, and Morvan French. The pop duo weren’t just dancers, but also models. Their debut album “All or Nothing” was released in Europe in November of 1988. Its success led to a reworked American release in March of 1989 with a title track name “Girl You Know It’s True.”
The album was a massive success, achieving 6X platinum sales. I was twenty at the time, and the airplay of their songs was inescapable. But within in a few months of the U.S. release, people could tell that fuckery was afoot.
In one of the cringiest moments in history, in July of 1989, Fab and Rob were doing a “live” performance of “Girl You Know It’s True” in Connecticut that was broadcast on MTV. The track they were lip syncing to started to skip, playing “girl you know it’s” over and over. Pilatus was all oh fuck we’re busted, said it’s fuckity bye time, and noped off the stage.
When I say cringe, I mean in hindsight, because the crowd didn’t seem to give a shit, and Pilatus was convinced to go back on stage and finish the performance. Audience must have been high.
Five months later one of the actual singers, Charles Shaw, spilled the beans. Allegedly he was then paid $150,000 by Farian to retract the statement that Morvan and Pilatus didn’t do any of the singing. Despite the mounting evidence, Milli Vanilli won the Grammy for Best New Artist in February of 1990.
By November of 1990, Morvan and Pilatus were sick of the critics and late-night TV mockery and said to Farian hey we can sing you have to let us sing on the next album. But Farian, who owned the Milli Vanilli name, said motherfuckers if you could actually sing we wouldn’t be in this mess. Farian then said fuck it, fired the duo, and went public on November 14, 1990, with the news that yeah we faked the whole thing Yoko Ono can sing better than these guys.
Rob and Fab confirmed the deception the next day in a massive press conference, and the day after that their Grammy was yanked.
The pair did sing during their presser, and they didn’t totally suck. They then formed their own band called Rob & Fab, but their one album wasn’t a commercial success. Sadly, Rob Pilatus died from an accidental drug overdose in 1998.
Is today your birthday? Happy fucking birthday. I hope you enjoyed this birthday story. If it’s not your birthday, you can still discover what cool—or possibly very fucked up—thing happened in history on your birthday. Go to JamesFell.com to get your “Historyscope.” The fuck is a Historyscope? It’s like a horoscope, except not full of shit. Check it out and maybe buy my fucking book On This Day in History Sh!t Went Down while you’re there.
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