Some thoughts on the significance of lip-syncing (miming) to music

The most successful Israeli viral video of all times (so far, and probably by far), is Tasha’s lip-sync of “Hey” by The Pixies . This video received about 30,170,950 million views, and counting. There probably isn’t an Israeli TV show watched by so many in history, a film or a book seem an unfair comparison.

Lip-syncing was one of the genres which indicated the rise of YouTube and rising dominance of user-created video content. But why did so many people find it engaging as viewers or performers?

On a semiotic level, I find lip-synching fascinating, as it emerges as such prominent “sign of the times”. So this is my go at some “history of the present”…

Lip-syncing seems to me like the child of karaoke, it is the next step in a series of social activities centred around music. Additionally, both of them are socially acceptable ego-trips. Before both, we had sing-songs, with people coming together to sing in a group (The T-mobile singing flash-mob campaign looks more like a mass karaoke than a traditional sing-song).

With karaoke, the original performance remains the central subject of the performance. The performer becomes bigger as she connects with the original cultural artefact. Simply: I sing Bowie’s “let’s dance”, friends and strangers cheer, and for a moment – I touch glory.
The original self melts away, I’m now a vehicle for the song, and my gestures signify the original’s concept of stardom. I’m a prophet and my god is the original pop-culture artefact.
Many karaoke moments are compromised of people getting together to celebrate their mutual cultural history, performing the anthems of their youth, whilst celebrating their chance at feeling the kind of attention saved for pop-icons.

 

(Ah… Attention, the rarest resource of our times, the key ingredient in intimacy, unfortunately a magic ingredient in business, therefore coveted by many.)

One step beyond karaoke, Lip syncing is a purer ego-trip.
In lip-syncing, the original artefact is reduced to a soundtrack for the performance. The re-enactment of music is no longer as central, and, therefore, it’s importance seems reduced. While karaoke is an acting-out of a stardom fantasy, synching dismisses singing, therefore decreasing the imitation component, and indeed, more often than not the lip-syncer does not imitate the gestures of the original performer or any pop performer.
The vocabulary of lip syncing fuses three registers – the quoted mass produced style of pop videos ; a “tradition” of lip syncing gestures that is common to the genre and the peer group, often copied in “reply performances”; finally, it introduces the performers’ own style. While karaoke always creates a dialogue with the original performance, lip syncing, singing excluded, is more expressive of its performers own ideas and fantasies. The fact the soundtrack is identical to the original, rather than interpretive, shifts the focus to what happens on the visual level.
The song then become a soundtrack for the performers delight at her own mannerisms. The vocabulary of lip syncer’s gestures clearly focused on a dialogue between themselves and their peer group (and a reflexive dialogue with syncing genre itself). Syncers have their own private language, while karaoke singers try to merge with the big soul of music.

The famous Wayne’s World Bohemian Rhapsody scene embodies a bridge between karaoke led gen-x culture and lip-sync led gen-y culture. In that scene you can see the focus is still on worshipping the original, but in most YouTube creations, it isn’t so.

Karaoke, so often used as a metaphor for Postmodernity is a part of a culture of quoting, sampling, remixing. Lip-syncing is much closer to mash-ups, cut & paste – further towards the edge of postmodernity.

Personally, I see in lip synching a metaphor for adolescence. Youth tribalism is often unfairly accused of being vacuous and shallow, and lip syncing bundled with many other “online signs of the apocalypse”. But in fact, it is just a symptom of the struggle to discover individuality and authentic meaning in a mass-produced global culture. Both lip syncing and karaoke echo the dream of stardom, but oddly, there is more of the self coming across in lip-syncing.
As a viewer, with many instances of lip-synching, you often feel that beyond the allegedly narcissistic facade of conventions borrowed from leading-peers and mass produced culture, you get a glimpse at who those teenagers truly are. That’s why I find the genre strangely hopeful and optimistic.

* My thoughts on karaoke in this post owe a great debt to Israeli author and columnist Dror Foeyr. Who wrote “Tzadok”, a book about an international karaoke “star” and prophet, full of wonderfully charming, funny and insightful monologues. I wonder if he ever dabbles in lip-syncing.
** In the UK the term for lip syncing is miming, I chose the American term as the specific type of syncing I’m discussing has very much emerged in America.

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