How Lip-Syncing Got Real

For several weeks, Netflix has been insisting that I watch its gender-swapped remake of the ’90s teen romantic comedy “She’s All That.” This version — naturally, “He’s All That” — stars Tanner Buchanan as the high school outcast who needs to be whipped into prom-king shape and Addison Rae as the popular girl who does the whipping. It is Rae’s first movie, but she is ubiquitous on TikTok, where her central mode of performance is breezily dancing and lip-syncing to clips of rap songs and ephemeral bits of internet video. When I finally relented and cued up Netflix, I realized that I’d never heard her actual voice.

It’s not a good movie. The bubbly charm that vaulted Rae from her Louisiana bedroom to TikTok fame fizzles on a studio set. As the resuscitated plot wheezes through its paces, Rae seems to be struggling to keep up. But the meta story interested me. Rae’s trajectory recalls the arc of “Singin’ in the Rain,” the classic musical about a silent-film star who stumbles in the jump to talkies. In that movie, the star masks her horrible voice by lip-syncing to a sweet-sounding actress hiding behind the curtain. The difference is that Addison Rae became famous by overtly co-opting other people’s sounds. And it is her world, TikTok, that represents the thrilling emerging medium.

Acting as if you are singing when you are not singing — lip-syncing has been an object of American popular fascination for a century. Not too long ago, it could even prompt a pop-cultural panic. Framed as a weapon of talentless pop stars and their cynical handlers, it came to represent the height of crass media manipulation. But now the opposite feels true: Lip-syncing has been refashioned as a tool of the appealingly scrappy amateur. Addison Rae can don a crop top, perkily mouth along to a lyric about Percocet and be anointed Hollywood’s new girl next door.

How did we get here? Lip-syncing was so ubiquitous in early musicals that in 1952, “Singin’ in the Rain” relied on it even as it critiqued it: Debbie Reynolds, playing the actress who sings for the star, was herself partially dubbed with the voice of the unheralded singer Betty Noyes. But while films were using lip-syncing to build pitch-perfect Hollywood numbers, drag performers were doing it out of sly necessity. As Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez detail in “Legendary Children,” their cultural history of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” drag shows were criminalized in early 20th-century America, and evading harassment meant performing at underground clubs and house parties where live music was often out of reach. While movie musicals hoped their lip-syncing created a naturalistic illusion, drag leaned into the artifice, building a commentary on the source material by challenging its gender norms.

In mainstream spaces, that artifice has been eyed with suspicion, wrapped up not just in homophobia but also a fear of technology, which might threaten to reprogram the essence of human culture itself. As the Christian Science Monitor asked in 1990, “Is advancing technology leading us into a musical world where nothing is ‘real’?” Occasionally, that tension builds into a culture-wide authenticity crisis.

In the early ’90s, the German pop duo Milli Vanilli scandalized the record industry by lip-syncing to uncredited studio singers, Pavarotti was sued for lip-syncing to himself at an Italian concert, and state lawmakers introduced a flurry of bills attempting to regulate dubbing. The pattern repeated itself in 2004, when Ashlee Simpson was pilloried for her lip-sync fail on “Saturday Night Live,” an online petition begged Britney Spears to actually sing on tour, and Elton John said that lip-syncing artists “should be shot.” Finally, in 2013, the controversy reached the Capitol, as journalists grilled Beyoncé about singing with a prerecorded track at Barack Obama’s second inauguration. This time, when she explained that she was a perfectionist using an approved industry tactic, the press actually applauded.

Lip-syncing has since swept American culture both high and low. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” busted drag performance out of gay clubs and cabarets and into America’s living rooms. Along the way, it made campy spectacle into a mainstream vehicle for telling personal truths, and fashioned drag queens into, as my colleague Shane O’Neill has put it, the cultural avatars of being yourself. (So successful was the show that it was swiftly co-opted into heterosexual cringe, via the celebrity reality competition “Lip Sync Battle.”)

It is now perfectly acceptable for pop stars to lip-sync in live performances, as long as they supply a fantastical enough show in return. This spring, lip-syncing even ascended to the opera: in the Philadelphia Opera’s short film “The Island We Made,” the “Drag Race” winner Sasha Velour appears as a spacey maternal spirit, channeling the singer Eliza Bagg’s voice through her glittery red lips. And this fall, you can take a Zoom lip-syncing course with the performance scholar M.B Boucai, integrating the psychological gesture technique of Michael Chekhov and the mime tradition of Jacques Lecoq.

Even as lip-syncing reaches new artistic heights, TikTok has democratized it, encouraging its billion global users to casually sing along. The app accommodates performance styles as disparate as Rae executing basic cheerleading moves and a girl mouthing the Counting Crows’ “Shrek 2” track “Accidentally in Love” over youthful images of the Unabomber. On a crowdsourced app, it makes sense for the central creative feature to have a low barrier to entry. Just as Instagram made everyone a hipster photographer with its vintage filters, TikTok turns its audience into experimental mash-up artists, with self-conscious nods to artifice baked into the experience.

Besides, as our experience grows increasingly mediated, we’ve come to appreciate the skills of the people who do the mediating. Much of TikTok’s charm derives from its lo-fi aesthetic, its janky green-screen effects and shaky hand-held shots. There is no longer some suspicious Hollywood power broker pulling the strings. (Or if there is, he has swooped in later, after the TikToker is already internet famous.) The app has taken all of the hallmarks of Hollywood manipulation — dubbing, but also airbrushing and C.G.I. — and put them in the user’s hands, where they have employed them in hypnotic, surprising, occasionally beautiful ways.

In the drag tradition, lip-syncing freed the body of the physical demands of singing, cracking open stunning new visual possibilities. Lip-syncing on TikTok is less about testing the limits of the body than exploring the boundaries of the phone. Some of the app’s most interesting content is made by young people broadcasting from under their parents’ roofs, and in a sense they are practicing their own kind of clandestine burlesque, playing with their identities amid nondescript backgrounds The tech may be new, but the performances are as pure as singing into a hairbrush.

Addison Rae is not a standout lip-syncer, but that is not the point of her. A drag queen lip-syncs with spectacular effort and razor-sharp precision, but Rae telegraphs the opposite, wearing the practice with a flirtatious lightness and evincing the middling technique of an amateur. Her following on the app (84.6 million) feels unjustified by her skill set, but her approachability is part of the appeal. Perhaps you could be her, if you were born with superior tooth enamel and a preternatural awareness of your most flattering angles. Which is not to say that the actual job of TikTok star is easy: When Rae failed to post for a week in 2020, internet headlines speculated that she was pregnant, or dead.

Rae’s earliest TikToks are staged in carpeted rooms featuring bare walls and inert ceiling fans, but as she rose in popularity, her backgrounds grew increasingly glamorous — Hollywood group house, infinity pool, Kardashian inner sanctum. The early frisson of her videos, which played off a girl next door unexpectedly surfing the cultural currents to stardom, has dimmed. Now that the self-reinforcing TikTok algorithm has ensured her hegemony on the app, she is swiftly invading more traditional entertainment spheres. You can find her on YouTube, where she sings the brief yet tedious pop single “Obsessed”; at Sephora, where she sells her branded makeup line; and now on Netflix, which has signed her to a multi-picture deal.

Boucai, the Zoom instructor, told me that lip-syncing accesses a transgressive remixing tradition developed among marginalized communities: “It’s a way of being able to perform yourself through what you can’t be — through the impossibility of what you can’t be.” Drag rests on heightening and exposing the contradictions of identity, and the best TikTok material does the same. But the app also serves up a buffet of content that only smooths those contradictions into unnerving new forms.

In a piece for Wired documenting the evolution of digital blackface on TikTok, Jason Parham observed that Black culture “works like an accelerant” on the app, driving the popularity of white creators who virtually port Black sounds through their own bodies. Here the casualness of a lip-syncing performance becomes discomfiting: For a white creator, Black culture can be assumed and shrugged off with the ease of a costume change.

Speaking of bad makeovers: “He’s All That” should represent Rae’s debut as a fully formed star persona, no longer borrowing other people’s cultural expressions but staking a claim to her own. Instead she looks stilted, vacant, lost. A cleverer remake of “She’s All That” (itself a take on “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady”) might have taken a lip-syncing TikTok star and refashioned her into someone who had something to say, maybe with the help of a disciplinarian drag mother. Instead we have Rae, just going through the motions. Through figures like her, lip-syncing has finally become not a scandal, or a triumph, but a bore.

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