why lip-syncing is having a moment

From Anne Hathaway to arthouse cinema, everyone just wants to mouth the words and pretend to sing-a-long.

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09 April 2015, 2:09am

In the late 80s / early 90s before YouTube allowed you to share your talent with the world, a fledging popstar was forced to stand in front of their bedroom mirror, hairbrush in hand and lip sync over the Top 40 chart rundown. It was a way to escape your humdrum self or create a new, shiny version.

But now, what was previously the domain of precocious kids, drag queens and Britney when she's busy being wheeled around on a hotel concierge trolley as part of her Circus tour, you can't move for people giving lip service to the top 40. You know something's definitely changed when the talent has taken to miming other stars' work.

Last week saw the TV debut in the US of Lip Sync Battle a 30-minute show on cable in which celebrities fight to become the best at miming to songs from the likes of Katy Perry to Taylor Swift. Lip Sync Battle started life as bitesize segments on Jimmy Fallon's The Tonight Show that went around the internet, A battle with Emma Stone received close to 49 million hits. You may have already seen the opening gambit from the TV show, where Anne Hathaway straddles a wrecking ball in her impressively committed take on the Miley Cyrus mega ballad.

The credit for Lip Sync Battle goes to actor John Krasinski, star of the US version of The Office, who pitched the idea to Fallon as a segment on his previous TV show, 'Late Night'. He'd been driving along Route 101 to Los Angeles and miming to Lionel Richie's All Night Long (All Night) when inspiration struck. It's worth noting the song that inspired the idea: a hardy perennial of the karaoke box. Karaoke can take some credit for introducing the wider world to the joys of lip sync. If the former make us all potential, drunk stars for a night, the latter means you don't need to worry about evoking the pub crowd's sympathy, or the fact you can't hold a note. And now, with its mainstream embrace, you don't have to worry about being mistaken for a drag queen.

For Krasinski may well have dreamt up the idea all on his own but he undoubtedly owes a debt to Logo TV's RuPaul's Drag Race where contestants have long since lip-syncing for their life. If they fail, they are eliminated and face the next year bombing around gay dives of America where miming has long been a mainstay of queer entertainment. On gay scene ground level, there are signs too that mouthing the words is having a renaissance. The Glory, East London's newest gay watering hole, recently played host to Lip Sync 1000, a miming competition and updated version of host Johnny Woo's Tranny Lip-Syncing contest from 2004.

Lip-syncing has long been the preserve of us plebs, before the celebrities belatedly got in on the act. When Carly Rae Jepsen released Call Me Maybe in 2012, she couldn't have known the track would take on such a life of its own. A quick YouTube search and you'll get the drag Chatroulette version (19 million views plus), the cheerleader version and the U.S. military version, which manages to be cute and hot and momentarily makes you forget these guys kill people for a living. Result.

It isn't all absolute silliness when it comes to lip-syncing. Two of the best scenes in cinema so far this year utilise mime to make their point. In Xavier Dolan's Mommy, the three lead characters silently mouth the words to Celine Dion's On Ne Change Pas, coming together in the moment to form an odd kind of threesome. No words are exchanged but an understanding between mother, son and next-door neighbour is reached, a silent secret the audience feels let in on as well. In Girlhood, a punchy female version of La Haine, which follows four troubled friends in Paris, the teenage group bag themselves a cheap hotel room for the night and blast out Rihanna's Diamonds. Filmmaker Celine Sciamma specifically wrote the song into the script; watching the mime by four underprivileged black girls captures the essence of what they strive for and can't escape without them having to utter a word. It's lip-syncing as a way to find an authentic moment, the characters' taking on another's skin to express something about their own they live in.

The obsession with authenticity is perhaps key to understanding why lip sync works. Previously, lip syncing was considered the death knell for authenticity in music but the advent of hugely theatrical productions by Madonna and Michael Jackson in the 1980s put paid to singing live when there was so much other spectacle to wrestle with. There have been plenty of lip sync outrages to savour like the various, unauthenticated sound clips of the artist's actual singing voice amplified above the note perfect track the audience hears. But the audience has become so tech savvy that this kind of thing is mere sport now, rather than something to beat a popstar over the head with.

Besides, we all know a finished song isn't the work of a single, raw recording but involve layers of sound and editing, which won't really sound quite the same if you try to replicate it live. It's helped too, that the anti lip sync brigade are such a bunch of no fun frankies. The quest for authenticity in music only leads you to bearded men plucking banjos. As anyone whose ever had the aural displeasure of listening to Radio One's Live Lounge will know, there's nothing to make you crave a good mime than the reimagining of Kesha's Die Young as some kind of earnestly indie guitar anthem.

So lip sync has become a go-to for those who want to show how much of a LOL they are. It's no great surprise that the first batch of contestants on Lip Sync Battle includes Anne Hathaway, an A Lister baffled by why the world hasn't really warmed to her. Or Justin Beiber, currently on a one-man mission to turn his reputation around. It's a good opportunity to reshape the narrative, as any good publicist will tell you. And it's just the celebrities who want to do that these days. We have all become our own PRs. It's why we like to sprinkle our earnest gym selfies on Instagram with a quick ten-second video of ourselves blasting out Fancy. Too cute! This guy's got range as well as biceps! Lip syncs are an easy win in the bid to convince the Likers to like and the haters not to hate.

It may be faking it, but lip syncing is an opportunity to show your authenticate, true self. And happily, because you can keep changing the record you mime to, you can have as many different versions of yourself as you wish. 

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Text Colin Crummy