Several months ago, I wrote a post about the mask as technology, but after reading Louis Chude-Sokei’s essay about PT Barnum and Joice Heth, I want to think further about saying that the mask is technology, specifically in reference to German producer Frank Farian and the groups Boney M and Milli Vanilli.
Most people know Milli Vanilli as the group that were eventually found out to be lip-synching when their music started skipping at the a live performance. But did you know that the producer behind the group Farian used similar actions with the Euro-Caribbean group Boney M in the ’70s? Whereas Farian hired other singers to record the songs for Milli Vanilli, Boney M began as Farian singing the vocals himself and then adding others later. The common feature between the two is that Farian did not think the actual singers were marketable and so used dancers to be the front for the singers, including himself. In a way, it was like electronic ventriloquism.
Boney M and Milli Vanilli’s story are kind of similar to PT Barnum’s use of Joice Heth and the turk machine is his early shows. Joice Heth’s body was seen, but Barnum controlled what she said and her story. He even called her a robot. The turk machine was a fake machine with a human inside controlling it. Boney M and Milli Vanilli basically treated as visual extensions of Farian’s musical production and sound recording technology. Chude-sokei wrote about PT Barnum as the beginning of media deception and the exploitation of a black face in order to produce that deception and hide from the brunt of the consequences. Think about it, at the end of the day who was majorly affected by the Milli Vanilli controversy — the two men who were seen (although you can make an argument about agency in the modern situations). To further expand on this, there is a whole history of white use of black, often exaggerated, visual and sonic representation (ex. minstrelsy) and the issues and discussions surrounding that history.