An Expert Explains Mariah Carey's Lip-Sync Fail

"I don't think we're seeing the whole truth."

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Since Mariah Carey's New Year's Rockin' Eve performance, both her team and Dick Clark Productions have offered takes on what happened. Team Mimi says the singer was a victim of "sabotage" and was forced to use in-ear monitors that didn't even work. The production team says the accusations are "absurd." On Tuesday, Mariah told Entertainment Weekly she was "mortified" but the debacle will not stop her from doing future live TV events. "But it will make me less trusting of using anyone outside my own team," she noted. (Good luck to the person or persons Mariah is referring to here).

Meanwhile, Mariah's devoted Lambs and curious gossips alike have all tried to move on and enjoy the first few days of 2017. But come on. It's been really hard to think about anything else. What happened out there, dahling Mimi and the ghosts of New Year's Eve past? Cosmopolitan.com spoke to sound engineer Phil Palazzolo to shed some light on the technicalities of lip-syncing, why backing tracks are an artist's BFF, and why TV audiences only heard the high notes of "Emotions" on New Year's Eve. Palazzolo has more than 25 years of experience working on live TV events including the NBA All Star Game, the Grammy Awards, and yes, even a few New Year's Rockin' Eve shows (which he says are "not great" gigs because of all the pressure).

What was your initial reaction to Mariah's performance?

I was shocked, mainly because at these events, there's fail-safe upon fail-safe upon fail-safes. There's absolute timing to the second. They don't have redos, they don't leave things to chance, which is why I'm pretty blown away by the mishap.

Can you describe the environment of Times Square on New Year's Eve? What's it like to work on the show?

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The chaos is hard to imagine. The sound of that many people, it can do something to you, it can send a chill through you. It's hard to explain. They're not totally deafening until the ball drops but when you're trying to do a technical job, you're on your headphones and trying to block out as much as possible and keep to your sheet. You've got run times for everything. Everything has to go exactly to plan.

Knowing all that, you'd think all sound problems would be perfected in sound check. How come Mariah's alleged sound problems weren't addressed earlier?

I don't think we're seeing the whole truth, I think it's a bit of damage control. She sings "Emotions" probably 12 times a month. Look at her touring schedule. It's not like she hasn't done it in a while. I would say, and this is obviously just speculation, that there was a decision made. With "Auld Lang Syne," you could tell that was lip sync. The third song ["We Belong Together"] was lip-sync. Possibly, she was expecting a vocal track to be there [for]. That and "Auld Lang Syne" made me think [what both camps have said are] not a complete depiction of what happened there.

What do you think happened?

Clearly in "Emotions" there was no vocal. And I can't help but wonder if she thought, "How come the vocal hasn't started?" No one told her and she was expecting [to lip-sync as opposed to sing with a backing track]. You can see it in her face.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The introduction goes by, she's waiting for it, it doesn't happen. Now she doesn't know if the crowd is hearing the vocal. The crowd hears one thing and the inner ear monitor has a specified mix of the way you need [to sing along with] it. It's possible she didn't hear it in her inner ear and thought, "Maybe the crowd can hear it," started singing, and then played with it for a bit and said, "We're missing a vocal track here." She says it, right in the mic. I think it was a communication error. She may have thought it was equipment failure. But there were no glances at the monitor engineer.

What's the role of the monitor engineer for a performance like New Year's Rockin' Eve?

From the footage I've seen, she's clearly playing with something in her right hand, above her chest. Maybe she's putting her ear bud back in. If it came out and got lodged in all that costume … you'd think someone would run out to [help her] … it's hard to speculate but I do see her repeatedly trying to grab something. But also if you look from certain camera angles, you'll see that there are monitor wedges, which are speakers aimed at the performer [typically used to help them hear vocals and instrumental tracks]. There will always be a bunch in case something like this [when an ear bud fails] happens. Most people would probably look over at the monitor engineer and say to jack up the monitor wedges, which are on the floor, and try and get through it. There's no question in my mind that she's done it so often, it's something she knows about. But that's another odd thing, there are no daggers stared at the monitor engineer, which I would think would be the first thing to happen. And that guy off to her left, on the side of the stage, it'd be the first place I think she would look when trouble started. And she seemed calm when she was doing "Auld Lang Syne." So there's something in the story we may never get the answer to. The guy who worked that show has signed an NDA upon an NDA. You're never gonna hear his side of it.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

How does a backing track work and why do we always hear about it in televised events?

In any big spectacular, it's really difficult to have enough voices to cover all the vocal parts. To give the audience the complete experience they're expecting, there is some reinforcement, some playback that everybody's hearing. Sometimes it's background vocals, but sometimes when you have an event like this, it will be actually vocal tracks. It's so hard to ensure, with no safety net … you're not gonna get another shot at it, you have to have stability. I think it's very naïve of a lot of people to think that when you see someone open their mouth, they're really singing. I wouldn't have sung in that environment.

This makes me think of Adele at the 2016 Grammys, when she had a sound problem. But she finished her song. Was Mariah technically able to finish her song? Or was her only option to not sing over whatever was playing for "Emotions?"

[Mariah] was oddly calm about it and there was no one rushing onto the stage to help. So I have to think that in terms of the technical side of things, everything is going to plan according to what's on the sheets for the day. She just totally lost her place in the song. I know it can happen. Adele's poise was admirable but it's not that easy to do when there are 2 million people in front of you. You can just freeze.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

When someone says they're singing live, what does it really mean? Is anyone ever purely singing live?

I believe that Mariah Carey does perform live almost all the time, with additional reinforcement tracks to fill it out. This was a poor decision problem. I believe she can sing her ass off but you wouldn't necessarily leave it to chance. Sure, tons of people perform live. When someone says they're performing live, they're singing. But they may have tracks to bolster the show or use additional background vocals.

How come only the high pitch notes were heard on the "Emotions" backing track?

With falsetto like that, to be that perfect, even for the best of singers, that's something really difficult to do without the ability to say, "Give me another take." I think that's smart. It's like, I want to ensure that they're expecting to hear it. I want to know that's going to be there. That would just be there to reinforce the live track. I don't know too many people who could do that night after night after night. Even the best of them.

Does she do this at her Vegas shows or when she's on tour?

Definitely. I think you'd be crazy not to [use the backing track]. I think we're too hard on what we expect from these people sometimes. They don't have superpowers. I'm surprised that this doesn't happen more often, that people are exposed for singing along to a track. That last song — if you really listen closely, you hear the prerecorded track and her singing on top of it.

You can definitely hear it on "We Belong Together." And it's obvious because the timing is slightly off. There's a bit of an echo. Again, isn't this what sound check is for?

To me, those mishaps would indicate that she rarely lip-syncs and is not very good at it, and that this was discussed and not fully conveyed. To me, it totally makes sense to lip-sync on a New Year's Eve show, but she hasn't done it all that much and isn't good at it. Someone should've shut her mic off on that third song, to be honest. Then you only hear the backing track. I think someone should've cut the mic and let her just mime it.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Where can Mariah go from here?

Something tells me this is going to turn out to be pretty good for her. The reality show kind of tanked. Now people are talking about her. She'll go on some show and do a kick-ass performance and people are going to be like, Oh, OK. You can easily remedy it. She can do it. In fact, I Googled "Emotions" from 2016 and she's singing. She's singing and she sounds great.

Is there anything about this disaster that surprises you?

The one thing that surprises me — and I think it's sort of sweet — the general outrage out there that someone didn't perform, it's beautifully naïve. And it's why people are talking about it so much. People know that they're not taking on a solo performance all the time. This is like someone telling them there's no Santa Claus. And it's sweet when people say they believe in Santa Claus.

Between Mariah and Dick Clark Productions, whose side are you on? Who do you believe?

I side with the show and the production company. I've worked with those people before. They do not leave things to chance. They just don't. It would not behoove them to do that, it would never work in this town again, so to speak.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Follow Marie Claire on Facebook for the latest celeb news, beauty tips, fascinating reads, livestream video, and more.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Music