Unheard of. Milli Vanilli, a dance-music duo that sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks and speaks English like the two Teutonic muscleheads on Saturday Night Live, has done something boggling. The group, scorned by critics and adored by clubgoers and devotees of MTV, has scored three No. 1 singles off its debut album, Girl You Know It's True. It has also sold 10 million copies worldwide (7 million in the U.S.), put together a video compilation of its greatest hits that sold 100,000 copies in a month, and copped three American Music Awards in January. Last week the Millis strutted their stuff on the Grammys and boogied off with the Best New Artist award. But it's those singles, those best-selling singles. The current entry, All or Nothing, is soaring high too. Unheard of.
Alas, Milli Vanilli is also heard from. "Musically, we are more talented than any Bob Dylan," announces Robert Pilatus, 24, with very little prodding. "Musically, we are more talented than Paul McCartney. Mick Jagger, his lines are not clear. He don't know how he should produce a sound. I'm the new modern rock 'n' roll. I'm the new Elvis." His (often silent) partner, Fabrice Morvan, 23, has his own key to success: "Rhythm, you know."
Thanks, boys. Perhaps some of that abrasiveness comes from youth. But more of it may be a way of combatting the pasting that Milli Vanilli has received from such precincts of rock traditionalism as Rolling Stone (Worst Album and % Worst Band -- 1989 Critics' Picks Poll). Rockers, of course, hardly mess at all with dance music, which is all right with the Millis. "We have only gotten bigger and bigger," says Pilatus about all the flak. "It just makes me more aggressive, and if I get aggressive, I get better. If I get better, it's worse for you."
How much worse than the Millis can things get? Their lighter-than-airhead lyrics and freeze-dried hip-hop rhythms combine pop and pap in tunes for instant consumption and rapid oblivion. Pilatus, the son of a German striptease dancer and an American soldier, was raised in Munich by an adoptive family. Morvan was born in Paris ("My father installed the air conditioning; my mother was a chemical biologist"). They hooked up in 1985, when both were in Los Angeles.
The two are products of the slick tradition of Europop that combines street sounds (usually American, like rap and house music) with disco glitz. The result is a kind of musical fashion show in which the look is as seminal as the sound, the moves more decisive than meaning. The Millis appear in their videos snazzily dressed, or half-dressed ("Our clothes style is to go for fashion"), whirling like cotton candy around a spool, executing dance maneuvers that fall a bit short of def. They are musical mannequins, modeling, selling and finally buying their own line.
Milli Vanilli is, as Pilatus says, "just a fantasy name," and their whole success is a kind of fairy tale, a musical fable for this uncertain transitional time in rock. The Millis go down easy, and easy, for the moment, looks like enough. This is not to suggest, however, that the Millis are unaware of their social impact. "Like a friend of mine went to Africa," Pilatus reports. "And there was no soap and no Coke. But there was Milli Vanilli."