The Radical Art of Lip Sync
Straight people are into drag now, which is cool. But let's not forget that, for queer people, lip syncing goes way beyond entertainment.
Lypsinka. ©The Orchard/courtesy Everett Collection.
"YAASSSS BITCH WERKKKK" – a gay.
It's late November, and the darkness of the night clings to the edges of central London. The shadows and the cold still have an energetic quality to them that will soon be folded away to the bleakness of midwinter. A traditional 1920s "spiegeltent" has been erected in the middle of Leicester Square for Christmas and, on a makeshift stage inside, drag queen Cheryl Hole is suspended in mid-air – legs and arms splayed as she readies herself to drop to the floor. To my left, Herr The Queen attempts to spin around a pole, toppling over herself and sliding onto the temporary wooden floor put down to protect the grass. Across the tent, wigs make their way through the whooping, howling, finger-snapping crowd as the song reaches its climax.
This is Gals Aloud – a drag tribute group to Girls Aloud, obviously – and their show "Not That Tucking Kind". It’s camp. It’s silly. It’s absolute fucking nonsense that treads the line between homage and parody in a way that only drag can. The show traverses the entirety of the Girls Aloud journey, from Nadine’s passport drama to the controversial snubbing of Javine for Sarah Harding, right through to the present day musical offerings of Kimberley Walsh. It moves from big group numbers to individual performances, with each queen taking on the story of their respective gal, combining music and audio, in-jokes and references to every culturally significant moment of the group’s history.
It's in shows like this – shows that, in reality, have very little substance on the surface – that the real power of lip syncing can be seen and felt. With the increasing popularity of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Lip Sync Battle, straight people have cottoned on to drag. Now a cultural phenomenon, it has canonised the death drop, the split, the reveal and the not-so reveal ("I'd like to keep it on please") in a way nothing else has really done in gay or queer culture – but there comes a point when you have to ask: how popular is too popular? At what point does it lose all meaning when even the straight people are doing it?
As an art form done well, drag is transfixing and breathtaking. It’s no wonder it has such crossover appeal. Watching someone wrap their face around the Thunderpuss remix of Whitney Houston’s "It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay" is objectively enjoyable. But the depth of that enjoyment is predicated on certain life experiences. For straight people, the enjoyment of lip syncing is often limited to the enjoyment of watching someone wearing half an inch of makeup and six wigs dick around on stage. For queer people, it represents something beyond entertainment.
"During the early-80s, I thought it was important to utilise what I would call a 'gay tradition', but give it a new twist," Lypsinka tells me. A queen who is iconic the world over for her lip synching performances, she started lip synching in the summer of 1980, with the character of Lypsinka lifting off in 1982. Her performances are legendary. She twirls across the stage with an incredible precision, hitting invisible marks in space and time perfectly on cue. As she does, she folds 100 different references and identities into themselves, cherry picking them from across history and wrapping them together.
"I'm not saying that lip synching is strictly a gay or queer art form," she says. "After all, old Hollywood musicals had lip synching in them all the time. Barbra Streisand, for instance, in the 1968 movie Funny Girl, is lip synching all the songs except for a bit of the last one. Jerry Lewis lip synched as part of his act when he was starting out. At the same time, it did seem like a queer art form because it was so beloved in gay bars in the 70s."
In his 2012 book, How to be Gay, American theorist David Halperin unpacks and interrogates the notion of contemporary homosexuality. In spite of its gay male-centric gaze, it raises big questions. Beyond simply fucking someone of the same (or no) gender, what is queer culture? A narrative or presence? An identity beyond the object of our sexual or romantic desires?
"When gay men appropriate non-gay cultural forms and bring out the queerness they find in them, they escape from the personal queerness they find in them," Halperin writes. "They escape from their personal queerness into a larger, universal, non-stigmatising queerness."
I think its in that ability to take something bland and beige (heterosexual), and colour it with the full spectrum of queerness, that the true power of lip synching lies.
"There’s an acknowledgement of the impossible when you enjoy lip sync," London-based queen Meth tells me. We’re sat in her front room, more than a couple of beers in, discussing lip syncing as an art form. Meth is one of the first queens I became friends with back when we were both much younger and her hair was much, much smaller. An internationally renowned performer, coming off the back of a nationwide tour with BenDeLaCreme, she’s famous for her sharp lip synching skills, splicing together sections of audio into pop songs and jumping seamlessly from intense dialogue to high camp pop. She is one of the many queens who put to bed the assertion that UK queens don’t lip sync.
The conversation quickly turns to lip syncs as a way to to curate, create and retell queer history. "It's awfully integral," she tells me. "The joy of lip sync is that you can recapture any point in history that has been recorded for audio and bring it back to life through your own body. Choosing to lip sync to Mommie Dearest can make all those in the room that know click their fingers and shout 'yasss bitch', but it’ll also educate those who don’t. It’s simultaneously an archive and a re-presentation. Somewhere between a museum and a live experience."
This view is shared by Lilly Snatchdragon – a "bio" queen who was a member of the Family Fierce along with Meth. She was the iconic stage manager for the queer cabaret night The Meth Lab at the now closed Black Cap in Camden – famous for being the first shows to bring Drag Race girls to the UK. Her power and presence on stage is unrivalled. Switching between an affected "pan-Asian accent" (her mum is from Laos and Lilly spent part of her childhood in Thailand) to her cut glass speaking voice, she plays with the conceptions western audiences have of women from south-east Asia, bringing them along with her until they find themselves uncomfortably laughing at their own bigotry. Her performances are laden with political undertones. In one such act, she lip syncs Rachel Rostad’s spoken word poem "To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang" interspersed with the song "Chains" by Tina Arena, while wrapped in chains, in a five-minute performance that’ll make your heart forget to beat.
"Lip sync creates more windows and doors for people to be able to open on stuff that they might not be educated on. It can be [like a queer history lecture]. I think lip syncs are basically now becoming mini-Ted Talks," she tells me as we sit in the office of what she calls her "muggle" job. She feeds me mountains of food as we happily chat away about her New Year’s show in Stockholm, and our respective lives.
"You can do an entire lip sync with a million different quotes or music clips, and you’ve given someone a whole education about how gender is a social construct," she adds. "It’s an education they’re not going to get anywhere else, done in a completely different way."
The educational value of lip sync goes beyond the substance of any given lip sync. Non-binary queen Rodent is sat in my flat, resplendent in bright yellow tartan trousers that provide the backbone for a solid ten minutes of chat. They’re a queen whose work is visceral and urgent. Their performance of quotes from Aileen Wuornos set to the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" is layered with an intelligence and ferocity that bleeds out of her every pore.
"Drag represents the most current part of the legacy of performance, and that in itself implies a sharing of knowledge and style throughout the years – and an evolution of it," they tell me. "So performance in terms of being a historical artefact that is constantly changing, but always reflecting back to what came before, is a very queer thing. As young queer people we’re the latest in a long lineage of queer people. We carry that with us, and I think the nature of performance is how we remind ourselves of our ancestry and our history."
That’s the thing about queerness: we have to construct our own stories, our own narratives and our own culture. There are no queer history lessons at school; it’s something we have to go out and find ourselves. And often the easiest place to find those stories comes in the form of someone on a stage, forming their lips around the vibrations of sounds and words that have long since dissipated. It’s in that space – in the silent, gaping mouths of drag queens – that so much of our history is held.
Through its self-referential nature, lip sync integrates experiences, moments, icons (queer or not) to create a queer canon. It is, as the queens have put it, "an archive", an "artefact" and a tool to open "windows and doors". It’s something, as Lily told me, "that has no rules, no guidance" and yet feels so integral to so much of the way we talk about and understand popular queer culture. More than that, it is used by so many to imagine a world that doesn’t yet exist.
"I don’t think that lip sync, and the world you create within it, is a utopia," Meth tells me, "but it has the power to show us what’s possible."
As the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race rolls into the next and, before long, a UK version appears, it’s perhaps worth remembering that – away from the rose petals and the wig reveals – there are stories being told and futures being imagined on our doorstep. Our narrative is being pushed forward not only on a runway thousands of miles away, but on the grimy stages in the bars of our cities. And they’re not being curated by producers, but by us and – perhaps most importantly – for us.