With the benefit of hindsight, there might be Grammy awards that members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences wish they could take back, but there is only one that they actually did: the Best New Artist Grammy that was awarded to the famously fraudulent dance act Milli Vanilli on February 22, 1990.
The competition that night for the Best New Artist award included Neneh Cherry, whose album Raw Like Sushi had spawned the dance hit “Buffalo Stance”; Indigo Girls, whose eponymous debut included “Closer to Fine”; Soul II Soul, the group that absolutely dominated the British House Music scene; and Tone Lōc, whose novelty rap records “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina” were both crossover pop smashes. But then there was Milli Vanilli, whose debut album Girl You Know It‘s True had sold 14 million units behind the success of five Top 5 singles that sold a cumulative total of 8 million units, including the #1 hits “Baby, Don’t Forget My Number,” “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” and “Blame It On The Rain.”
That level of commercial success is not the kind of thing that Grammy voters—a notoriously industry-focused bunch—take lightly. Yes, there had been an Ashlee Simpson-like incident involving a jammed tape machine at a “live” concert the previous July, but it is fair to wonder whether those Grammy voters who hadn’t heard the murmured doubts about Milli Vanilli’s legitimacy would have cared one bit if they had. Academy members had, after all, nominated the Partridge Family for the very same award back in 1971. It was an open secret in the music industry that many hit records were made by musicians other than those whose faces graced album covers, but the Milli Vanilli deception crossed that hard-to-define line separating “standard industry practice” from “ethically outrageous behavior.”
Or perhaps it was merely the very public way in which that deception came to light that forced the Academy to act. At a press conference on November 14, 1990, German record producer Frank Farian revealed that he had fraudulently put the names and faces of the gorgeous but talent-free Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan on the dance records he was creating in his studio using less esthetically gifted real musicians. Four days later, Milli Vanilli’s Grammy award was withdrawn, and Pilatus and Morvan began a well-documented descent into drug abuse and failed comebacks.