Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Borrowed Voice: The Art of Lip-Synching in Sydney Drag

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Borrowed Voice: The Art of Lip-Synching in Sydney Drag

Article excerpt

An earlier version of this article was the winner of the Veronica Kelly Prize for best postgraduate paper when it was presented at the annual conference of the Australasian Association for Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies (ADSA) at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, July 2005.

Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn and Sydney drag queen Claire de Lune are three very different artists with one thing in common: they have all taken part in a performance that involved lip-synchronisation. Accepted in the Hollywood musical, maligned in the music industry and acknowledged as art for the marriage of voice and animated character in animation, lip-synching is a mainstay of Sydney drag. Worldwide, in the drag arena, performers often proclaim that they sing live, as if this places them on a tier above the lip-synchers.1 This is a great misconception and this article will argue that lip-synching is not only a key element of the gender toolkit, but also a vehicle for enriching the drag act, and an art form in itself. It will present a history of drag lip-synching, the skill and technique involved, functions of lip-synching, and theoretical implications such as lip-synching's engagement in deconstruction, parody and the questioning of reality. It will illustrate proposals by drawing on the work of four of Sydney's leading drag queens: Claire de Lune, Portia Turbo, Verushka Darling and Vanity Faire.2

The Macquarie Dictionary defines the intransitive verb 'to lip-sync' as 'to match lip movement with recorded speech or singing; mime'. It places the term as originating from the United States in the 1960s: a combination of the words 'lip' and 'synchronisation'.3 Laurence Senelick also places the advent of drag lip-synching in the 1960s.4 After World War II, he recounts, the live singing drag acts that had flourished to entertain the military crossed over to civilian stages where they enjoyed a relatively brief popularity. However, more conservative times and the unfolding of McCarthyism meant that drag was progressively outlawed throughout the United States, and by the 1960s, it was illegal in Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. The old drag clubs also came under pressure from other areas, with demands from musician unions, increased cabaret taxes, prohibition of attendance by the military, and police raids. The drag performer now dressed as a man and was reduced to hosting girlie shows. On occasions where drag was resentfully endured, male underwear had to be worn beneath the female costume, which was also the case in Australia at the time.5

Rising costs and an erosion of their client base forced clubs to replace live musicians with pre-recorded music - a much cheaper solution. Then came the natural connection: if music could be canned, then so could the voices. Lip-synching to pre-recorded voice became the club owners' panacea, and - to the horror of the virtuoso drag artistes - the vehicle that opened the flood gates to a new kind of drag performer and one whom the old stalwarts considered an 'inept impressionist'.6

One of the earliest accounts of the differences between the live singing and the lip-synching acts is in Esther Newton's study of Chicago, New York and Kansas City drag queens, Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America, first published in 1972. Therein, Newton makes the following comment on the live singing acts and the lip-synchers, or the 'record performers':

... the record act is cheaper to produce because it does not use musicians, and the performers are paid less since it is disparagingly said in the profession that 'anybody can mouth a record.' ... In general, the live performer will ... have higher prestige within the drag world than the record performer.7

In Australia also, lip-synching would have opened up the drag performance field to a wider range of participants. In Sydney, miming to recordings of female singers can be traced at least as far back as 1961, to the Jewel Box, the city's first true drag club. …

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