I could tell it was a gay bar when the bartender started mouthing the words to Lady Gaga. P-p-p-p-p-p-poker face. His lips seemed to move absent-mindedly as he filled another glass with vodka and cranberry juice. P-p-poker face.
Of course, the feather boa around the bouncer’s neck may have been my first clue.
Suspended above the bar, TVs played re-runs of Rupaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. It was a lipsync climax: Dela vs. Aja, to the tune of “Anaconda”. I sipped my drink as I watched Dela ham up the campy comedy of Nicki’s verses.
Suddenly, the stage to my right began to light up and the other bar-goers flocked over. “Bambi Banks!” chuckled the MC into the microphone. As the drag queen took the stage, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” began to blast through the speakers. People held out dollar bills as tips, clamoring to get closer to the stage.
Bambi’s charisma captivated the crowd; we were putty in her hands. But she went the entire performance without saying a word.
She didn’t need to.
Lipsyncing is having a bit of a moment right now.
It’s everywhere and it’s inescapable.
Lipsyncing’s roots as a queer art form date back all the way to the 1960s, when drag became to pop up in gay bars across America. In its infancy, lipsyncing was a sham artform — notable for cheap production value, lesser talent, and accessibility.
Now, lipsyncing is a cultural behemoth. It can be fun, it can be serious, and it can even be straight.
It’s the most important challenge in VH1’s wildly popular Rupaul’s Drag Race, beloved among gay Americans. It pops up in TikToks for Gen Zers. Straight celebrities, like Dwayne Johnson and Gig Hadid, perform onstage for Lipsync Battle.
It’s so mainstream even the straights are mouthing the words to Beyonce.
Why is lipsyncing such an identifiable portion of gay counter-culture, our personalized form of queer expression? Why this campy form of storytelling? Why is this our most identifiable performative expression?
Why not slam poetry, or monologuing, or original music, or modern art, or karaoke, or spoken word, or ballet?
Lipsyncing is a Radical Act of Artistic Expression
I began to think of an answer when I watched Sasha Velour’s 2017 lipsync for the crown in the finale of RuPaul season 9.
Most remember this performance because of its rose-petal wig-snatching climax, but I was always drawn to Sasha’s incredibly emotive face. Whitney’s words, an aching cry for love from another, seemed to pour through Sasha’s lipsyncing performance. Without saying a word, Sasha laid claim to Whitney’s feverous feelings.
As the rose petals fell, I understood why lipsyncing is in a unique position to capture young gay’s emotional heartstrings.
Lipsyncing is not an act of creation. It’s an act of radical reclamation. A reclamation of the emotions of which we were deprived in our childhood.
Lip syncing in drag is important because it’s oppressed and marginalized people, who may never have had a voice, appropriating someone else’s voice and words to tell their own story.” — Drag Entertainer Qhrist with a Q
Queer people grow up alone.
As far as marginalized groups are concerned, that makes us unique. Our parents and siblings and neighbors look like us, but they’re different than us. We have no role models to look up to in our lives, except maybe a gay uncle that our older brother whispers about in a mocking tone.
When we begin experiencing novel emotions and feelings, we cannot mirror those experiences on others. Our parents can’t walk us through what we are feeling.
We don’t see ourselves in our family. We don’t see ourselves in the media.
Queer people grow up filtering ourselves.
We’re told, whether explicitly or implicitly, that our burgeoning feelings are wrong. Malignant. Abnormal. Insidious.
Any hobby that doesn’t line up with our family’s expectations — sports, sex, and violence for young boys — needs to be eliminated. Any expression of abnormal sexual desire, gender expression, or identity needs to be stamped out.
Want to paint pottery during rec time at summer camp? Too girly. Go play dodgeball.
Want to play dress-up with your female kindergarten classmates? Too silly. Go roughhouse with boys your own age.
Oh, are you going to cry while you watch a Pixar movie? Too fruity. Turn on ESPN.
Queer people grow up without the ability to express ourselves.
And so we take these feelings — be they sexual, feminine, emotional, or artistic — and shove they deep inside. We don’t feel entitled to our own emotions. We ignore them. We try to outrun them.
Of course, this race to outrun our own emotions is one we’re destined to lose. Sooner or later, we have to confront the feelings that cause us so much pain with the external world.
And the moment our toes breach the closet door, our emotions burst out of us like a tidal wave. The invisible anvil on our shoulders evaporates into dust.
Being able to express ourselves is a luxurious feeling. We feel freer to be open, to wear earrings, to be emotional, to be sexual, to be whoever the fuck we want to be.
But we can never get those years back. Those years in our youth (and possibly beyond) in which we shutter ourselves within closet doors aren’t forgotten easily. We remember the long years in which we looked on a world that we could never be a part of.
When we lipsync, we reclaim that world, piece by piece.
It’s a way for us to scream without screaming, our lips moving with the power of other people’s words. When we lipsync, we take some of that power and keep it for ourselves.
“Let It Go” is a Disney power-ballad about a young queen with magical abilities who learns to disregard what others think of her powers. But it’s also about a young queer kid who is learning to move past his family’s expectations of his masculinity.
“Call Your Girlfriend” is about a straight woman who tenderly tells her male lover to break up with his current girlfriend to stop cheating. But it’s also about a closeted gay high schooler, in love with his straight male friend, and unable to act on any of his scary new feelings.
“This is Me” is about a bearded woman and her fellow circus performers who are learning to embrace their physical abnormalities. But it’s also about a community of people who are told that they are not allowed to be who they are. They are not allowed to be “me”.
When we lipsync, we are able to unleash all of the repression emotions and experiences that we deprived ourselves of for so long. It’s a cathartic explosion of feminine energy. It’s an artistic way of releasing our own story, a story we were told never to tell.
This song is about you, but it’s also about me. This music is for straights, but it’s also for us. These emotions are for everyone, and therefore, they’re for me, too.
When we lipsync, we speak with words we previously left unspoken.
More from Björn Jóhann:
Gay People Come Out Every Single Day
When we have to tell strangers or new friends about our sexual orientation, we have to breach the closet doors all over…