A couple of years back, during an interview, I asked Michelle Visage of RuPaul's Drag Race fame whether the cult talent show would ever come to the UK. "We would love it to happen," she told me. "But we'd need a commissioner to pick it up. Prospective commissioners loved the idea initially, but they think it's too niche because they haven't seen it."
Too niche indeed. Around the same time, a new show called Lip Sync Battle premiered on Spike cable network in the US, followed by a UK version a year later. The contest – the highest-rated unscripted premiere in the channel's history – consists of two celebrities lip syncing to famous pop songs, before the crowd determines the winner after two rounds have been completed. This "competitive lip synching" format, according to comedians Stephen Merchant and Jimmy Fallon, is something they came up with, out of thin air nonetheless, while brainstorming. Okay, cool. Now, let's rewind for a second.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the art of lip syncing became such an intrinsic part of drag culture, and by extension, queer culture. Over the decades, though, drag queens have revolutionised and perfected the act of miming a song as part of their onstage acts. In the 80s, for instance, drag performer Jazzmun became known for circulating the clubs of LA, face beat for the gods, miming songs by the likes of Grace Jones and Whitney Houston. Lady Bunny, a well known queen from Atlanta, also built her reputation in the 80s by miming the words to re-recorded, filthier versions of classic pop songs. Later on, in the early 90s, if you'd stumbled into any queer club in New York – Club 57 and Pyramid Club specifically – you might have caught John Epperson (drag name LipSynka) lip synching to show-length soundtracks taken from 20th-century movies. The point being, lip syncing is as much a part of drag's DNA as heels and a lace-front wig, and it's been that way for years.
However, it wasn't until RuPaul launched Drag Race in 2009 on Logo TV, that the lip sync aspect of drag was pushed to a much wider audience. RuPaul's Drag Race was, and is, revolutionary because it took underground queer club culture and repurposed it for a classic reality contest format, while simultaneously refusing to water down the scene's pure foundations. If anything, the show volumises the joyous, trashy campness of drag culture and takes the piss out of mainstream reality TV in the process. It's shiny and polished like America's Next Top Model, but it's also awash with lowkey John Waters references and winking nods to Paris is Burning. And, with the exception of Michelle Visage – who spent years voguing in New York's ballroom scene – is predominantly run by LGBTQ people, from the contestants, to the host, all the way up to production company Word of Wonder (founded by filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato).
There are endless reasons to appreciate the existence of Drag Race. But really, other than the runway, it's the "lip sync battle" segment that stands as the show's crowning glory. If you haven't seen it yet (which, really, what have you been doing with your life so far?), at the end of each show, two drag queens compete by lip syncing to a famous pop song. Whoever does it best, gets to stay ("shante, you stay"), while the other has to go home ("sashay away"). Sound familiar? Now let's return to Lip Sync Battle, a concept apparently entirely invented by Stephen Merchant and Jimmy Fallon.
Before I continue, I must emphasise that there's nothing objectively wrong with Lip Sync Battle. In fact, it seems like a lot of fun in a "Why are they doing this? Who is advising them? Look, there's a man in a dress" kind of way. Where else on earth are you going to witness something as ludicrous as Kat and Alfie from Eastenders gyrating their way through Pink's "Get This Party Started" while Mel B, who is dressed up as a literal sexy reindeer, claps along like someone's nan in your local pub at closing time? And where else, might I add, are you going to observe Channing Tatum, a man so pumped up he looks like he eats human bones for breakfast, dressed in full drag as Beyoncé while he mimes "Who Run The World (Girls)", before actual fucking Beyoncé saunters on to join him on stage? And in what other situation would Mike Tyson, the well-known boxer, agree to side-step his way through Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It"? These are all pertinent questions.
That said, Lip Sync Battle follows a trajectory we have seen time and time again on screen: taking something that queer people have been doing for decades, and then aggressively watering it down for a mainstream straight audience, with little to no acknowledgment of where it came from. To see a queer man in full drag death-dropping while lip synching Cher's "Believe" to screams of "WERK!" might be considered "too niche" for primetime television, but to see Danny Dyer, the poster-boy of straight white maleness, miming the words to Amy Winehouse is not.
This is something RuPaul himself has noted. When asked about Lip Sync Battle in an interview for Vulture he dismissed it with a metaphorical eye roll. "It's a poor ripoff of our show," he said, adding, "Regular, straight pop culture has liberally lifted things from gay culture as long as I can remember. And that's fine, because guess what? We have so much more where that comes from. Take it!"
RuPaul's right: mainstream pop culture has been borrowing from underground queer culture and making it more "palatable" for a straight audience since time immortal. Only last week, for instance, the BBC aired a performance of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" in a show about musical theatre – I repeat: a performance of Lady Gaga in a show about musical theatre – and due to time constraints removed the entire segment of lyrics that refer to LGBTQ empowerment ("No matter gay, straight or bi / Lesbian transgender life / I'm on the right track baby / I was born to survive"), as well as the song's famous "Don't be a drag, just be a queen" line. And, more than that, you only have to note the wide-spread infiltration of words like "yas queen", "werk", "shade" and "read" into everyday vernacular, by a section of society who may not have seen Paris Is Burning, let alone been to a ball, to see how far the influence of the LGBTQ community spreads.
In essence, there is nothing wrong with underground queer culture permeating the mainstream. After all, it has made the TV shows and films we watch, and the songs we listen to, infinitely more multi-faceted, and to claim that the huge, indefinable web we call "pop culture" isn't built upon a complex intersection of influences – which often overlap and inform each other – is both reductive and simplistic. To that end, it would be unfair to claim that one singular community owns lip syncing, as a concept.
But we still live in an era in which film trailers about the Stonewall riots are being entirely stripped of their context to accommodate a white, cisgender narrative. And in which one of the only out lesbians on primetime television is Ellen Degeneres. And in which George Michael, an artist as unapologetically queer as they come, has had his sexuality repeatedly brushed over in the aftermath of his death. And in which Lip Sync Battle UK is given the go-ahead to air on a major British channel, whereas RuPaul's Drag Race – as of yet – is not. If only the mainstream would wake up and realise that, actually, there's room for all of us.
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