Song: Milli Vanilli: “Girl You Know It’s True”
Written by Sarah Kessler
I first heard “Girl You Know It’s True” when I was nine, in 1989, one year after the song’s European release. The friend who played it for me was the epitome of 1980s tween femininity; she had crimped blond hair and regularly wore stirrup pants. She also had her own cassette player. I had none of those things because my mother was German, and was therefore opposed to popular culture and all other things pleasurable in life. So I went next door to L____’s house to simulate sex between her Barbies while listening to Milli Vanilli. For me, these activities were failed attempts at synchronization: ever behind the times, I struggled to keep pace with contemporaneity.
At the time, contemporaneity was the new jack swing style of Milli Vanilli, whose own synchronization project would soon go painfully awry. But before the breaking of the so-called “lip-synch scandal,” Rob and Fab mouthed and danced their way in unison from the screens of boxy TV sets into hearts nationwide. They also hailed from Germany, though not from the same white peasant stock as my mother. Rob was half German and half African-American, raised in Munich, and Fab arrived in Deutschland as an adult, via France and Guadeloupe, where he was born. Frank Farian, the group’s sketchy white German producer, would later be painted as the Aryan Svengali who puppeteered Rob and Fab’s postcolonial bodies to world stardom. But while they were exploited, their framing as mere puppets presents an offensive misreading of their pivotal roles in the awesomely kitschy extravaganza that was Milli Vanilli.
When I finally glimpsed the video for “Girl You Know It’s True” (at L____’s house, owing to my mother’s cable ban), I entered the ranks of fandom. Sporting braided extensions whipped from side-to-side in time with the beat, and primary-colored, square-shouldered, oversized blazers above spandex manpris, the hunky yet undeniably fagacious duo enacted a hybridized pirate-chic to which I was drawn—as I was also drawn to Hammer pants—without knowing why. Replete with poorly executed breakdance moves, chest-bumping, and ample high-fives, Rob and Fab’s highly aestheticized, overdetermined performance inspired me. And impossible as it would have been for a mousy, diminutive white girl like me to pull it off, I wanted to be like them, to rock that hair and those manpris, with all of the problematic assumptions that that desire entailed.
When L____ told me that Rob and Fab had, in her words, “lied,” and that most of their singing had been performed by someone else, I was in a quandary. Lying was wrong, and yet the audiovisual experience of Milli Vanilli was undeniably pleasurable. Was I to stop listening and looking as a result of this unwelcome revelation? The consensus was yes, and Rob and Fab were undone. The unmasking of the Milli Vanilli “lip-synch scandal” was the moment when I learned to hide my own immorality—to fold certain pleasures into myself while condemning them on the outside. This proto-Nietzschean cycle of violence would define my relation to popular music for nearly two decades. Only within the last five years have I begun to listen, with a new ear, to the 80s music that I trained myself to reject as a teenager. In other words, “I sat back and thought about the things we used to” listen to, and I realized that they “really mean a lot to me,” truth be damned.