To Lip Sync Is To Sing
Spike TV's Lip Sync Battle is wildly entertaining. Based on the identically named segment on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the show pits celebrities against each other in competitions of dancing and lyric-mouthing, with LL Cool J and Chrissy Teigen as hosts. Now renewed for a third season, Lip Sync Battle has featured as its competitors musicians (Justin Bieber, Iggy Azalea, Jason Derulo), non-musicians (Chris Paul, Channing Tatum), and others (Shaquille O'Neal). International adaptations of the show have been made in 10 different countries, including in Lebanon and in China, with more on the way.
Lip Sync Battle is a contradiction, in that it is at once musical and non-musical: musical, because its medium of competition is the song; non-musical, because the competitor does not participate in any aspect of the creation of the song. Notwithstanding the fact it requires a certain degree of rhythmic competence, lip syncing is seen by many as the locus of the talentless and the tone-deaf, an act of musical chicanery.
The popularity of Lip Sync Battle in spite of this existential tension underlines a phenomenon we've observed before: musical culture is often not musical at all. Indeed, the performative aspects that make Lip Sync Battle so entertaining have more to do with sight than with sound. They include:
- A famous, charismatic performer.
- A supporting cast, often dancers, that elevates the performer.
- A thematic spectacle which gives context to the performance.
These facets rather aptly describe musical culture. To a large extent, the material that music fans consume is not music per se, but rather mythology, a performer's narrative bolstered by the above tenets. This characterization is most obviously on display in popular music, as in the opening of last night's BET Awards:
The object of this performance is not Beyoncé-as-singer, but Beyoncé-as-legend, as highlighted by the costumes, the flashing lights, the pool of water. Even if not to such an extent, this type of musical mythologizing can be found in every genre, especially at the top echelons. (Orchestral conductors, for instance, come to mind.) In short, the greater the cult of personality surrounding a performer, the less his musical production actually matters to the public consciousness.
Why, then, is there a public outcry every time it's revealed that Coldplay or Beyoncé lip synced? Likely, we feel that we've been duped; that the artists have been dishonest with us; that they have violated some unwritten contract which promised us their unadulterated artistic output. But it is we who have been dishonest with ourselves, for no such contract exists. What's more, we probably wouldn't even want such a contract, because we'd be disappointed by how they really sound.
With Lip Sync Battle, there is no deception. It recognizes that the audience craves stories more than sounds, and takes this premise to its logical conclusion. It amplifies the space between fiction and fact, and thereby turns lip sync into song. This turn of truth makes Lip Sync Battle very entertaining. The joke is on us, though, if we don't recognize that the very same forces are operating behind most of what we think of as "music."