AFTER THE JUDGMENT comes the performance. Each week on RuPaul's Drag Race, one of the two lowest scoring drag queen contestants is eliminated from the competition. In a last-ditch shot at redemption, RuPaul commands these queens to “lip-sync for your life!” What follows is a collaborative performance, improvised to a predetermined song, in which the “bottom two” queens fight a nonverbal battle for the judges’ attention. All contestants lip-sync, but many also dance — a few perform gymnastics, some shed wigs or clothes. A sorry few crack under the pressure. In these moments, any humor in the imperative to “lip-sync for your life” evaporates, as the audience becomes acutely aware of the high stakes binding glam and gloom.
Though typically edited into just two-minute segments, the drama of these lip-syncs make them the most memorable and celebrated aspect of a show whose commitment to campy exaggeration has made it nearly ubiquitous among queer and queer-loving US mediaphiles. In one standout performance, season three contestant Manila Luzon, frocked in a Big Bird–inspired yellow feathered gown, gesticulated theatrically and drew cross-eyed faces to the up-tempo syncopations of Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park.” During season one, contestant Tammie Brown failed to learn the words to Michelle Williams’s “We Break the Dawn,” and awkwardly (though determinedly) danced her way to elimination at the behest of celebrity guest judge Michelle Williams. Near the conclusion of season three, one episode away from the finals, contestant Yara Sofia stripped out of a handmade paper gown and collapsed, sobbing, unable to continue with Patti LaBelle’s “I Think About You.” And in the spin-off series RuPaul’s All Stars Drag Race, season two finalists and All Stars teammates Raven and Jujubee, now forced to compete against one another, hugged and wept through a wrenching rendition of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” mascara-tinged tears gliding down their cheeks toward their furiously working, wordless mouths.
No small part of the power of the lip-syncs comes from their refusal to comply with a near culture-wide mandate that associates imitation with fakery. Elsewhere in US media discourse — from the Grammy-revoking scandal of Milli Vanilli in the early 1990s to the more recent controversies surrounding Ashlee Simpson’s 2004 SNL performance, Britney Spears’s 2009 concert tour, or Beyoncé’s national anthem at the 2013 presidential inauguration — lip-syncing seems to pose a unique threat to what passes in the hyperproduced, multi-billion dollar recording industry, for authenticity. The cultural and industry value placed on actually producing one’s own vocal sounds is tellingly evident in the upswing of films over the last two decades that organize a narrative crisis around karaoke scenes: My Best Friend’s Wedding, A Life Less Ordinary, Duets, Lost in Translation. All these films use karaoke as a device through which characters recognize and negotiate complex feelings and desires. Though these feelings have little to do with whether particular characters can sing, their narrative significance seems predicated on the fact that they try. Despite being kissing cousins with karaoke, lip-syncing is rarely granted comparable dignity as a narrative device, and Drag Race is s...read more