When Mariah Carey took the stage to deliver her now-infamously disastrous performance on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve With Ryan Seacrest, the singer’s vaunted five-octave vocal range was never supposed to be an X factor. For high-profile live TV events, many steps are taken to ensure that the fragile and unreliable human voice doesn’t screw everything up. Obviously, that’s not what happened this time. Carey’s team says the snafu was the producers’ fault; Dick Clark Productions says they’re not to blame. We’ll probably never know for sure who gaffed, but we do know how these shows are supposed to work.
At a live public performance, where there’s a lot of ambient noise, it’s standard practice for singers to sing along with a prerecorded guide vocal. That’s different, explains Bryan Walters, who’s helped produce dozens of high-profile live performances for MTV, from a technique like lip-syncing, where there’s no live singing at all. “When you’re singing to a track,” says Walters, “you’re laying down a real vocal on top of the recorded one.” That — singing to a guide track — is why viewers could hear Carey’s vocals even when her mouth was closed. Her team has said as much, in response to accusations that the technical errors exposed her as a lip-syncer. (Who are these adorable rubes scandalized to learn that a singer performing outdoors in midtown Manhattan in the middle of winter is receiving a little prerecorded assistance?) The vocals that viewers hear during live televised gigs are typically a combination of live and prerecorded vocals, mixed in the moment by an audio engineer. “If a singer is doing a great job, the audio mixer can fade down the guide vocal,” says Walters. “If the singer’s struggling, the mixer can help her by bringing her voice down and the guide vocal up.” So it’s usually only partly true to call singing on television “live,” but the blend of live and prerecorded vocals should be seamless.
To help bolster the illusion of “live” singing, performers will sometimes prerecord new, intentionally rougher vocals — rather than use the crystalline album versions — to sing along to during the performance. “That way there’s a nice live graininess to the vocal and not the perfectly polished studio sound,” says one veteran musical director, who has worked with pop stars of Carey’s stature on live televised performances (and who preferred to remain anonymous).
Walters also emphasizes that these events are television productions, not concerts. A singer isn’t even in control of whether his or her mike is on or off. “Someone else is deciding that,” Walters says. “You can’t have a situation where there’s sound from the singer’s mic bleeding into what the hosts of the telecast are saying.” The fact that Carey could be heard commenting on her problems during her performance suggests she was never merely lip-syncing. When singers are lip-syncing though, a common tactic is for the mike to be turned on as soon as the singing is done, so that the singer can, for example, make comments to the audience.
TV producers’ desire for a pristine performance also means there’s not much room for a singer to improvise. “You could vocally ad-lib but only in a small space where the song allows for it,” says Walters. “Because the music is prerecorded, the music can’t follow a singer along if she starts doing something unexpected.” Musical spontaneity is not something a TV show like Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve is shooting for.
Carey’s representatives said the root of her performance issues were faulty in-ear monitors. Typically there should be various safety nets in place to help ensure that a performance isn’t scuttled if the in-ears fail. “First off,” says the music director, “an artist or someone from their team needs to raise hell and say that they’re not going onstage until the her mix is fine or her monitor pack is working. I don’t care if it’s live TV, you don’t go onstage without knowing that the sound works. Second, they should’ve had a backup monitor pack ready to go. It wouldn’t have looked good on TV, but as soon as it was clear there was a problem, someone should’ve run out and swapped in a new pack.” And if Carey couldn’t hear any music after she pulled out her in-ear monitors, “then the stage monitors weren’t loud enough.” It’s also unlikely that a dead battery was the culprit. Walters notes that at “a show like this, unless there’s some gigantic fuck-up, someone checks the battery for the monitor pack and also checks to make sure it’s plugged in properly. I’d be shocked if that didn’t happen. The people who work on these shows are experienced.”
So what happened? “If I had to guess,” says the music director says, “I think [Carey] was getting static in her earpiece, got frustrated, and took it off. Then when she couldn’t hear herself in the monitors, she was like, ‘Fuck this.’ I’m sure the technical problems were real, but she handled them terribly.”
If there were static, it would’ve likely been caused by interference with the radio frequency that the monitors were tuning into during the performance. “It wouldn’t be surprising if that happened, since they were in the middle of Times Square and there was so much other equipment competing for frequency space,” said the musical director. “But they should’ve made sure they had a clean frequency before they performed. They also could’ve switched out her pack to help for one tuned to a cleaner frequency, which would’ve taken about 30 or 40 seconds but looked really bad on TV.” It would’ve been a jarring moment in what was designed to be a smooth television performance, but, ultimately, a far less disruptive one than what millions of people saw happen on New Year’s Eve.