Should Britney sync or sing?

Recently, Britney Spears got into trouble for miming her way through shows. She'd sold her tour as a live performance, when in fact the songs are
pre-recorded and lip-synced. We're all very familiar with the idea that people singing on TV are, often, not actually singing. In October, Cheryl Cole was praised for "courageously" choosing to sing the first verse of her single live on the X Factor before resorting to a backing tape, as if she had pulled a drowning child out of a lake rather than warbling her way through a handful of wobbly notes. The pop industry has inculcated, in generations of music fans, the idea that we should be grateful to stars for making the effort to sing.

If you stop and think about this, it is extremely peculiar. In what other field of human activity could someone reap such rich rewards for, essentially, pretending to do their jobs? How many footballers have made a career out of miming free kicks? Would Gordon Brown be allowed to lip-sync a speech at the Labour party conference? Would you be impressed if you found out your doctor was actually a skilled actor who had spent the afternoon in rehearsals practising his "moves" with a stethoscope?

But the truth is that where multimillion-dollar shows such as Britney's are concerned, we don't really expect singing: we expect a garish pantomime, with costume changes, dance routines with a cast bigger than the population of a medium-sized European country, co-ordinated merchandising, a lot of dutiful whooping and then a bit of singing if there's time to fit it in. Anyone who goes to see Britney live and leaves muttering, "I thought the vocals were suspiciously clear and even", is rather missing the point. Her tour is even called Circus. Does it sound like it's been put together to reward musical purists?

But does it matter? Does the calculated shallowness of the mainstream pop industry mean that our music scene is doomed? Plenty of people think so. (Sting condemned the X Factor as having "set music back decades" - a bit rich coming from a man who released an album of Elizabethan lute songs.)

But as a music-lover, I feel relaxed about it. Pop has always been full of elaborate shams; it hasn't stopped brilliant artists from coming to the fore. If anything, the alternative music scene tends to be at its most vibrant when there is something truly distasteful to be an "alternative" to. Look at the way punk rose up against the worst excesses of disco, or Britpop emerged from the seemingly bleak musical landscape of the early 1990s. Great music is out there, more readily available, than ever. And tonight, I'm going to watch a band singing and playing their instruments. That's what they claim, anyway. I'm going to be watching their mouths very closely.

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Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains