Generation Y

Lip wars

“Lip Sync Battle”—the half-hour viral sensation that pits celebrities against one another in fake karaoke contests—is about to enter its “second season” (only a month and a half after the conclusion of its first) on Spike TV, which seems as good a time as any to ask: why does this show exist?

Like Ellen DeGeneres’s “Repeat After Me” on ABC, “Lip Sync Battle” originated as a recurring talk-show comedy segment. Jimmy Fallon—one of the program’s first contestants—developed the idea with John Krasinski (an executive producer of “LSB”) as a skit for “Late Night” and then brought it with him to the “Tonight Show,” where it achieved sufficient popularity to merit its own spinoff. But NBC passed on Fallon and Krasinski’s pitch, and the show ended up on Spike, where it became the network’s most-watched original series, though its real popularity was online: clips of movie stars, comedians, and athletes miming pop hits quickly became ubiquitous on social media.

“Lip Sync Battle” is conceptually minimalistic: it knows what we came here to see. A cheerful trivialization of the “American Idol” format, it’s framed as a “contest,” but it doesn’t bother to create any particular stakes. There’s no prize; the celebrities aren’t even competing to win money for some charity on whose behalf they might feign profound disappointment or gratification at the end, as they do on televised celebrity cooking challenges.

You can’t go online to vote for your favorite lip-syncher; the winner is decided by a simple in-studio applause assessment. There are no off-stage segments or panel of judges. The series has two hosts—a deeply humbled LL Cool J (channeling the Xzibit of MTV’s “Pimp My Ride”) and the model Chrissy Teigen (channeling the Carmen Electra of MTV’s “Singled Out”)—who engage the contestants in some pre-show banter and post-game commentary, but otherwise the program is occupied almost entirely by the performances themselves, which, on the other hand, are not remotely minimalistic.

One reason why people like the show, I think, is that, on television, lip-synched musical performances are actually better than live musical performances. In most cases, however, we find them morally repugnant and are forced to reject them. On “Saturday Night Live,” virtually every live band sounds terrible, but when, in 2004, Ashlee Simpson brought a backing track to Studio 8H and was exposed through a technical glitch, the media and the general public both lambasted her: we’d rather listen to something dreadful but authentic than be cheated.

Yet Michael Jackson’s appearance on “Motown 25”—arguably the most memorable televised musical performance of all time—was lip-synched, and no one cared. The lip-synching allowed him to focus on his spectacular dance moves, and even today, artists are “allowed” to lip-sync only if their dance routines are so demandingly athletic and complicated as to make live singing impossible. This rules out a lot of non-athlete musicians, including Ashlee Simpson.

But because the “intention” of “Lip Sync Battle” is comedic, not musical, it has created a safe space for the public to enjoy (for instance) an impeccable performance of “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift, who is in fact not a great live singer and, moreover, not as charismatic a showman as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who lip-synched her 2014 hit for the show.

It must be said that, within the admittedly limited artistic medium of lip-synching, the vast majority of the performances on “Lip Sync Battle” are excellent. As it turns out, even those celebrities whose fame has nothing to do with dancing (Marlon Wayans, Emily Blunt) tend to have pretty good dance moves, and those who are not “performers” in any traditional show-biz sense at all (Hoda Kotb, Mike Tyson) nevertheless occupy the stage with aplomb.

Although the show’s jukebox extends from hip-hop to classic rock, virtually all the songs picked by the contestants belong to the same certain category: familiar, catchy, slightly cheesy—“guilty pleasures” and “crowd-pleasers.” Since the goal is to generate laughs, an obvious trick is for male contestants to pick girly songs and for female contestants to pick masculine songs—the more incongruity the better—but the program doesn’t always take this direction. Of course, there’s only so much a show like “Lip Sync Battle,” with its narrow focus, can do—so who knows how long its popularity will last, but so far it’s always pretty fun.

The show’s most significant attraction, I believe, relates to the notion that even super-famous, super-successful people harbor unfulfilled visions of themselves, just as we may picture ourselves as rock stars despite not knowing a single guitar chord. “Lip Sync Battle” encourages viewers to embrace the ridiculousness of the fantasies that speak to them: as a middle-aged white male, you may feel that you contain an inner Beyoncé, and that’s totally valid. “LSB” licenses this sort of role-playing by showcasing impersonations that, on the surface, seem implausible—yet the celebrity guests (with the help of backup dancers, expensive props, and lighting effects) are gifted enough to pull them off.

Yes, the Old Spice pitchman Terry Crews has a feminine side, and the elegant blonde Malin Akerman may dream occasionally of being a misogynistic hip-hop star. The nerdy British comedian Stephen Merchant may imagine himself as an olive-skinned Latin lover. It’s an easy comic gimmick, but it works only if the performance feels earnest.

When Common and John Legend (who won an Oscar together, as rapper and singer respectively) faced off, they reversed roles: Common “sang,” and John Legend “rapped.” We all sometimes get sick of being ourselves.

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