Read my lips: The art of lip syncing

Left: Whitney Houston lip-syncs her rendition of the National Anthem before Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium, January 27, 1991. Right: Mariah Carey’s lip-synced New Year’s Eve performance in New York’s Times Square hits a snag on December 31, 2016.

George Rose, Angela Weiss/Getty Images

READ MY LIPS: Increasingly, it’s an expression that could be applied to some of our most popular singers. Our Cover Story is reported by Tracy Smith:

“It’s a hard knock life for us ...”

A few hundred miles north of Broadway, the kids of New Boston, New Hampshire brought down the house last month, at the town’s annual lip-sync contest. Cute, and in a way, cutting edge. 

It seems that lip sync -- at least when the audience is in on it -- has become a whole new genre of entertainment, from a popular skit on late-night TV:

Lip Sync Battle with Emma Stone by The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on YouTube

… to a hit show on cable:

More than two million viewers tune in every week to see famous people make a scene on Spike TV’s “Lip Sync Battle.”

If you liked Sir Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, just wait until you see him as Elton John:

Sir Ben Kingsley syncs Elton John's "Rocket Man" | Lip Sync Battle by Lip Sync Battle on Spike on YouTube

L.l. Cool J is the ringmaster, along with supermodel Chrissy Teigen.

So, Smith asked, is lip syncing a talent?  “ Absolutely, it’s a talent, there’s no question about it,” said Cool J.

“Yeah, if it weren’t a talent, we wouldn’t have a show,” Teigen added. “Definitely, some people we were, like, blown away by how good they are!”

So, what is lip syncing all about? “I think it’s just one of those things,” Cool J replied. “We sing in the shower. We sing in our cars. Sometimes we lip sync, sometimes we use voice. But I think human beings, we just love music.”

And there’s more:  lip sync apps like musical.ly let music lovers make and share lip sync videos. Some of these online lip sync-ers have millions of followers, and even go on lip sync tours through a company run by Meredith Valiando-Rojas called DigiTour.

“These are people who aren’t playing an instrument, they’re not singing, a lot of them don’t even really dance all that well,” Smith said. “Is this an art form?”

“I think it’s a form of expression,” Valiando-Rojas replied. “And it’s interesting because I think it’s telling about this generation. They don’t want just to observe, they want to participate.”

Whether or not you see it as talent, lip syncing is nothing new. 

From 1952 to 1989, just about every performance on “American Bandstand” was lip-synced, in part because the original Philadelphia studio was too small for a band, says author Marc Weingarten.

“So it basically was a size issue?” asked Smith.

“Initially it was, yeah. But then Dick Clark decided they were rolling so many acts through on a weekly basis, it was just easier for them to come in, pretend to sing their song, play the record, and roll out,” Weingarten said. “It was just expedient and easier that way.”

L.L. Cool J lip-synced to his own record on the show back in 1986.

Smith said, “That’s how they all did it back then, right?”

“Yeah, but the difference is we’re really singing out loud though,” said Cool J. “Even though they’re using the masters, playing for the audience, in the TV world, like, you’re going in, it’s just your mic’s not on. So it’s a little different in that, yeah. It’s not, like, a kung fu movie overdub.”

“Your voice is there.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I was going hard!”

Another giant leap for lip-sync: MTV.  Mark Goodman, one of the network’s original stars, now hosts a daily radio show on Sirius-XM Radio’s “Volume” channel. He says MTV really raised the bar for performance. 

“Once MTV stepped up with videos, and once the audience that we’ve kind of generated began to expect the kind of performances that you would see on a video live, well then, something’s gotta give,” Goodman said. “You know, you can’t dance like they dance in these videos and really expect to maintain a vocal range with any kind of reliability.”

For example, Britney Spears’ live stage shows are as demanding as her music videos, and her management has acknowledged that she uses a backup track now and again. 

Of course, the problem with trying to lip sync is that it’s really hard to do well. Everything sounds fine until you screw up a word or have a technical hiccup -- and after that, there’s no going back.

The pop duo Milli Vanilli turned out to be phony baloney when an audio glitch on stage in 1989 revealed that their hit song “Girl You Know It’s True” was actually lip-synced to other singers’ voices. And singer Ashlee Simpson was caught lip-syncing to her own voice track on “Saturday Night Live” in 2004. She blamed a bout of severe acid reflux for ruining her real singing voice that night.

Smith asked, “Why would an artist choose to lip sync?”

“I think there’s real reasons,” said Goodman, “like you’re ill or outside performances, we talk about Super Bowl performances, there’s just too many moving parts. It’s cold. Your vocal cords are very tender instruments, and they’re really affected by that stuff.”

So Beyoncé wasn’t taking any chances for the Obama inauguration in 2013: she pre-recorded the National Anthem, and mimed the words. Ditto Whitney Houston in the 1991 Super Bowl.

Beyoncé Sings the National Anthem at the 2013 Obama Inauguration | The New York Times by The New York Times on YouTube

And Mariah Carey chose to lip sync her set this past New Year’s Eve -- a decision that quickly became obvious.

“I don’t know the insides on that,” Goodman said. “It is one of those situations. New Year’s, cold, major crowd. I thought for the moment anyway, she was great. She rolled with it, and put out a tweet that, you know, stuff happens.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” said Smith. “If everybody does it, which it sounds like everybody does at one point or another, why does everybody get so horrified when someone gets found out?”

“I think that we expect a lot of our entertainers. And I think that there’s people who have fans who have felt ripped off.”

Of course some stars prefer to sing live all the time, and let the notes fall where they may.

“It’s art, you know?” L.L. Cool J said. “It’s not right or wrong. I mean, obviously, me, I prefer to see, if it’s an actual concert with a performer, I wanna be live. Like, when I do my concerts, a L.L. Cool J concert, I’m live. I mean, there’s background tracks and different things and choruses playing and stuff, but that main vocal is me.”

“And if you mess it up?”

“Then you ‘Put your hands in the air!’

“Isn’t that what performing is?” said Goodman. “If you’re a singer, then sing.”

“Even if maybe it’s not perfect?”

“It depends on how not perfect it is, but yeah. It’s live. I miss that. And I want that. I expect that.”

Maybe the lesson in all this is, if you’re gonna lip sync, you might as well own it.

L.L. Cool J said, “There’s something about being able to perform and get loose and let your hair down and be crazy -- it makes you a kid forever. Like, you’re just young forever.”

      
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