The range of material on the Web site YouTube is almost literally incredible—it's like the largest talent show in the history of the world crossed with your boring uncle's home video collection. You can see virtuoso guitarists playing TV theme songs, college guys pretending to be repulsed by ice cream, a robot dancer who might actually be a robot, and (for some reason) a girl eating an apple. There are kids' bands covering inappropriate songs, James Lipton reciting bad rap lyrics like they were Keats poems, and endless footage of George Bush's awkwardness at press conferences. If you like home video of iguanas, you have about 70 choices. The site has no organizing aesthetic or agenda. It's a kind of anti-TV-network: an incoherent, totally chaotic accretion of amateurism—pure webcam footage of the collective unconscious. It can be a little overwhelming. And its users add 35,000 videos every day.
For the cultural critic, however, YouTube is an invaluable resource. It allows us to study phenomena that have flown for centuries under the analytical radar. Take, for instance, the formerly mysterious art of lip-syncing. Once merely a private folk art, syncing has risen over the last 20 years to displace jazz, baseball, and rock 'n' roll as the great American pastime. It's become the sole prerequisite of post-MTV fame and one of our most lucrative global exports. (We ridiculed Ashlee Simpson not because we suddenly discovered she was syncing—everyone knew that—but because she bungled it so publicly: It was a nationalembarrassment, like an Austrian ski-jumper crashing in the Olympics.) In bedrooms from Maine to Oregon, lip-syncing is the last real connection between a celebrity overclass and its fan base. It has become such a powerful symbol of Western culture that it was outlawed last year in Turkmenistan. And yet we know very little about it. What, for instance, makes a good lip-sync so funny that you want to forward it to your entire address book, and a bad one so painful that you want to hurt the syncer?
Fortunately, amateur lip-syncing has—like other secret arts of the bedroom—been liberated by the Web. YouTube is a clearinghouse of virtual nonsinging. There are upside-down chin syncers, a guy channeling a Counting Crows song through his homemade Kermit the Frog puppet, and at least five different people re-creating, move for move, Tom Cruise's underwear sync from Risky Business. Using YouTube, we can cross-reference thousands of examples and finally—finally! after all these years of darkness!—begin to sketch, if only roughly, an aesthetics of lip-syncing.
I like to think I have some authority on the subject. As a young man, I gained a very local renown as the frontman of my family's living-room air band, in which I fake-sang while strumming a body board. This soon evolved into a solo career, which culminated with my controversial performance, in front of an entire Mormon congregation, of Weird Al Yankovic's "Livin' With a Hernia." The ensuing scandal—the lyric "drop your shorts and cough" was singled out as particularly unwelcome in the House of God—effectively ended my career.
Lip-syncing is, like limerick-writing or mimery, a severely self-handicapping art. Its premise is so weak—"It looks like I'm singing this song, but we both know I'm not singing this song!"—that it takes a genius to make it even watchable. Pitfalls are everywhere: choosing the wrong song, forgetting the words, bursting into laughter when you haven't even come close to doing anything funny, and—most dangerous of all—rocking out in an excessively facetious way (mock-intense stare, head-bobbing, arm-pumping, lip-biting). When a talented syncer really nonsings his heart out, however, the effect is complex, powerful, and instantly recognizable.
Take, for instance, Gary (the "Numa Numa" kid) Brolsma, probably the most famous Internet lip-syncer of all time. His performance of "Dragostea Din Tei," a formerly obscure Romanian pop song, is the Sistine Chapel of amateur syncing, where all the potential of the art comes together. Take a moment to revel in its glory. Brolsma compresses into the clip's 97 seconds a volcanic passion, Swiss-watch coordination, and the imagination of a character actor; he fluctuates between beat-propelled shoulder-pumping joy and suave face-rubbing Euro-seduction. He makes the song's catchy falsetto opening ("Maya-HEE! Maya-HOO! Maya-HA! Maya-HA HA!") look like the mating call of a lovably exotic bullfrog. It's a classic performance, and its longevity is a testament to the grass-roots revolutionary force of a good sync: Though Brolsma's fame climaxed all the way back in 2005, months before the birth of YouTube, his clip has replicated itself so many times through parody and tribute that it still has a healthy presence on the site. There's a sock-puppet homage, a video about the popularity of the video, Napoleon Dynamite dancing to a fast-forward version of the song, and many unfunny imitations.
The most recognizable syncers on YouTube might be a pair of Chinese boys called (with admirable directness) "Two Chinese Boys." They've posted a handful of popular videos, each of which follows the same rubric: The boys sit side by side in a dorm room, channeling bubble-gum pop while someone works obliviously behind them at a computer. Their coordination is impeccable, especially during harmonic call-and-response, and they are unparalleled at creating the illusion of really feeling a song's high moments. They're a classic comic duo: The guy on the right is streetwise, fluent in hip-hop hand gestures and facial expressions; his partner is wistful and sensitive (he occasionally pretends to cry). Watch, for instance, my favorite video. During the song's climactic midsong rap, the guy on the right stares the camera down while his partner tosses in delicate vocal fills and gazes offscreen at (judging from his expression) an injured puppy limping off to die in front of a sunset. The Two Chinese Boys' emergence as the best lip-syncers in the world may be the surest sign yet that we are passing the superpower torch.
As a talent show, YouTube is the polar opposite of American Idol. Instead of bestowing lucrative record deals based on a mastery of traditional show-business talents, the site measures a more mysterious and interesting skill set—the unpredictability, irony, and misdirection at the heart of lip-syncing—and rewards it with a kind of intangible hip credit. There's something profound in this. The Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," for instance, is just another raft of Top 40 love clichés—but the Two Chinese Boys' version of the song (in which the boys, dressed in Yao Ming jerseys, dart tightly and suddenly back and forth) adds several layers of meaning: It repeats the clichés, but it also shows their inherent ridiculousness; it's a complex pantomime of our guilty love of seeing love marketed via boy bands. At its core, lip-syncing is a satire of our own unseemly dependence on pop music—but a satire that's always affectionate. The best syncing is simultaneous homage and mockery. After all, you have to commune with a song for weeks, even years, before you can properly sync it.
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