Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

Lip Dubs, Camp and Common Ground in the Digital Age

Fine, fresh, fierce

As regular readers likely know, I spend my daytime hours working in Communications and Marketing for Dalhousie University here in Halifax, a job which only rarely crosses into the pop culture world I write about here at the blog. On Friday, though, the university’s student union released a new promotional video: a one-take “lip dub” of Katy Perry’s insipid “California Gurls.”

If you’re not familiar with the term “lip dub,” it refers to performance videos that combine “lip syncing” (mouthing along the words to a song) with “audio dubbing” (replacing the audio of the video with the original song file). The term was coined by Vimeo founder Jake Lodwick in 2006. Most of the time, a lip dub involves a large group of people singing along to the song, in sequence, in some sort of stylized, theatrical fashion. Many of them are shot in one take, including the most famous lip dub: a routine to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” performed by students at the Université de Québec à Montréal, released in September of last year.

It’s not insignificant that the lip dub phenomenon is being driven by students. Sure, schools are among the better places to find enough interested people to pull off a large ensemble piece such as these. But it’s more than that. The lip dub phenomenon seems a decidedly millennial trend; any older person who shows up in one of the 5000+ “lip dub” videos on YouTube seems decidedly out of place, as if they’re getting “hip with the kids.” Lip dubs are not just a digital or cultural sensation – it’s a generational phenomenon.

Which might explain why I can’t stand them.

It’s not that I don’t admire the work that goes into a great lip dub, or the sheer, unbridled enthusiasm with which it’s performed. But when I watch these videos – even the one for my own school – I cringe, I shudder, my stomach turns in knots. I feel the same way about flash mobs, another youth-driven video phenomenon where a group of people crash a public space (a mall, street corner, etc.) with a choreographed song and/or dance routine. When I watch one of them, I feel embarrassed for everyone in it. There’s no intellectual basis to my reaction; it’s guttural, instinctual.

However, it seems I have few allies in this point of view. The perfect fodder for the viral media age, videos of lip dubs and flash mobs spread like wildfire across the web, shared rabidly on Facebook walls and Twitter accounts. Lip dubs from schools you’ve never heard of have hundreds of thousands of views; the “I Gotta Feeling” one alone has over 6 million. I shared the Dalhousie Student Union lip dub (which already has over 5,000 views) on the university’s Facebook Page and, to date, it’s gotten over 75 “likes” – the only link I’ve posted that’s ever gotten more was an announcement that school was cancelled due to snow.

But not even the University of Guelph’s lip dub of Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)” can warm my grizzled heart to the lip dub phenomenon. What am I missing here?

Start of something new

Craig Jennex is a friend of mine who just completed his undergraduate degree in music, focusing on musicology in particular. I got to know him after interviewing him for a Dal News article on his thesis project: a look at how late 1990s boy bands, such as N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys, reshaped attitudes towards masculinity. (Craig presented his findings at the 2010 IASPM Canada conference and is starting his MA in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory at McMaster this fall.) His argument is that by blurring lines of gender and sexuality, boy bands led the way in helping rewrite traditional masculine constructs.

I think he’s onto something. Here’s an excerpt from his IASPM paper:

One significant contribution from the boy bands of the 1990s is evident in our current ideals for male dance. In short, the boy bands discussed in this paper made it okay for boys to dance again. In the wake of the boy band phenomenon of the 1990s, pop idols like musician Justin Bieber and singer/actor Zac Efron dominate the space of desire for young boys and girls. Pop stars of this generation embrace dance as part of their personas in a way that would be unallowable without the mediation of the boy bands of the 1990s. It is easy to recognize the prestige given to stars like Bieber and Efron, and the prominence of song and dance-oriented television shows like Fox’s Glee, ABC’s Dancing With the Stars and MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew. In the post-boy band world, dance has once again become a celebrated aspect of white male masculinity.

How much credit you want to give boy bands for this trend is up to you, but there’s no question that it exists, and it’s pulled dance further away from the feminine/homosexual stigmas it’s held for decades. The High School Musical generation is growing up with a very different mindset towards dance than my generation did, particularly when it comes to masculinity – which might explain why the appeal of lip dubs and participation them seems to cross gender and sexual boundaries with ease.

But there are other trends feeding into the lip dub phenomenon, some of which probably warrant more insight than I can offer in a blog post. One is that the “alternative/mainstream” dichotomy that has been crucial in developing musical identities since the late 1970s (and arguably earlier, but let’s go with the punk/post-punk splintering as a good starting point) has fractured in the digital age. The collapse of traditional distribution methods has broken down accompanying stigmas and made it kosher for even the hippest of hipsters to acknowledge that they dig the latest chart-topper. And let’s not discount the mashup trend in further accommodating pop music to alternative scenes – as I type this, I’m listening to a Katy Perry/Genesis mashup that takes everything I hate about “California Gurls” and makes it awesome.

Another trend is the increasing acceptance of theatricality in music performance; specifically (since technically, all performance – even “four dudes with instruments” – is a sort of theatre) the infusion of dance, costume and non-simulation elements into music video and live performance. Although this is nothing new for pop music, or hip hop for that matter, it’s a trend that’s not only ramped up in recent years (see Gaga, Lady), but has even made its way into rock music, where authenticity and naturalism reigned in the 1990s – ever notice that Arcade Fire and Coldplay perform with “uniforms” that are the same every show on a tour? I suspect that the staged nature of lip dubs – the props, the dance routines, the literal interpretation of lyrics – is one of the main reasons they strike me the wrong way, but such theatricality is as natural as breathing for a new generation of music listeners.

But is there more to the silliness of lip dubs than just theatre?

Camp rock

I feel like I’ve left a lot of Naomi Klein’s No Logo behind as I’ve grown older, but her thoughts on irony have stuck with me; perhaps because irony is so central to my personal worldview. Reading her chapter dealing with the subject, I felt like it was the first time I’d ever considered irony from a distance, understanding it less as a philosophy and more as a coping mechanism. We consume/communicate with irony as a way of dealing with the absurdities in life that we can’t control: if we have to put up with “California Gurls” all summer long, why not go against your standards and embrace the song, even if only as a way to point out how silly it is? For the Kurt Cobain generation, this is how we dealt with things. It allowed us to keep our musical identities critical and credible while managing a media space that was growing increasingly out of our control.

I can’t help but feel like something has changed. I see less and less “ironic” consumption taking place when it comes to pop music, and there’s certainly little, if any, of it on display in these lip dub videos. The love and affection for these ubiquitous pop songs is shockingly genuine, the enthusiasm infectious.

My thesis is that irony as a coping mechanism is being replaced by camp: an open, honest embrace of absurdity and ridiculousness. Instead of co-opting the pop songs that we can’t escape from, camp inspires us to simply go with the flow; if you can’t beat ‘em, join em, essentially. The non-ironic resuscitation of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” – which I’ve written about before – might be considered the apex of this trend, though the entirety of Glee comes close.

A few theories as to why this is the case: First, the increasing acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual subcultures has broken apart what was, arguably, a quasi-monopoly on camp. One could easily see a time in the not-too-distant past where the behaviour on display in these lip dubs would cripple a straight dude’s reputation, simply because camp was so closely associated with gay men. Attitudinal changes have opened the doors for straight men to embrace camp as a coping mechanism without fear of social reprisal.

But there’s also that breakdown – or broadening, if you will – of musical identities that I mentioned earlier, a trend inseparable from the demassification of musical discourse and discovery. Which begs an interesting question: in the digital age, when we can listen to whatever we want, when we want, why are we becoming MORE accommodating to the sort of pop hits showing up in these lip dubs? Shouldn’t our cultural silos become more rigid now that we have more control over them than ever before? We do realize that we don’t have to listen to Katy Perry anymore, right?

The lip dubs themselves answer this question better than I could: just look at the sheer number and variety of people involved. I’ve always been skeptical of the argument that we only listen to pop music because it’s what we’re fed, and the 21st century is proving my skepticism sound. No, we embrace pop music because we want something to share with each other, to dance with each other, sometimes even to argue about with each other. The appeal of pop music’s sound – which evolves and changes with the times – is secondary to its appeal as shared space.

And that’s perhaps the most important component of the lip dub phenomenon. After all, kids have been miming along to pop songs in their bedrooms – hairbrushes for microphones, tennis rackets for guitars – for generations. Now technology has made it easy for them to get together and do it en masse, to share what was once a private spectacle and turn it into digital theatre for the world to see.

Lip dubs will never be my thing; they play to attitudes about music and identity that I can only view from a distance, and I can’t deny that some part of me finds the camp embrace of pop music somewhat troubling. But the communal aspect of lip dubs can’t help but be a little bit inspiring. Even if they’re silly and syrupy, lip dubs represent a sign that even in the digital age, we’re still desperately seeking common ground with one another. And if that common ground has to be song and dance, so be it.

(From McNutt Against the Music. Follow McNutt on Twitter.)

Related on

—Why Glee is Kind of Like Purple Rain
—Lady Gaga's Pro-Logo Video
—On Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

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