YouTube Lets Sam Anderson Contemplate Lip-Syncing

Sam Anderson in Slate:

The range of material on the Web site YouTube is almost literally incredible—it’s like the largest talent show in the history of the world crossed with your boring uncle’s home video collection. You can see virtuoso guitarists playing TV theme songs, college guys pretending to be repulsed by ice cream, a robot dancer who might actually be a robot, and (for some reason) a girl eating an apple. There are kids’ bands covering inappropriate songs, James Lipton reciting bad rap lyrics like they were Keats poems, and endless footage of George Bush’s awkwardness at press conferences. If you like home video of iguanas, you have about 70 choices. The site has no organizing aesthetic or agenda. It’s a kind of anti-TV-network: an incoherent, totally chaotic accretion of amateurism—pure webcam footage of the collective unconscious. It can be a little overwhelming. And its users add 35,000 videos every day…

For the cultural critic, however, YouTube is an invaluable resource. It allows us to study phenomena that have flown for centuries under the analytical radar. Take, for instance, the formerly mysterious art of lip-syncing. Once merely a private folk art, syncing has risen over the last 20 years to displace jazz, baseball, and rock ‘n’ roll as the great American pastime. It’s become the sole prerequisite of post-MTV fame and one of our most lucrative global exports. (We ridiculed Ashlee Simpson not because we suddenly discovered she was syncing—everyone knew that—but because she bungled it so publicly: It was a national embarrassment, like an Austrian ski-jumper crashing in the Olympics.) In bedrooms from Maine to Oregon, lip-syncing is the last real connection between a celebrity overclass and its fan base. It has become such a powerful symbol of Western culture that it was outlawed last year in Turkmenistan. And yet we know very little about it. What, for instance, makes a good lip-sync so funny that you want to forward it to your entire address book, and a bad one so painful that you want to hurt the syncer?