When I have had the pleasure of writing for Shuddhashar and similar publications in the past, my reflections have tended to veer towards analytical and academic essays. In a world as complex and structurally inequitable as the one we live in, it felt important for me to write critical pieces that built on my experiences of being a queer, disabled, brown immigrant. Especially as I am living in a neoliberal Western country veering further towards the right with each passing day. But, when I was approached to write a piece on the theme of “Intimacy”, it felt disingenuous to try and approach a topic that is so inherently personal from a broader, political perspective.
With that in mind, I thought about what I could contribute to this issue in a way that was unique to my experiences – while still being something that, hopefully, others could connect with. (This was a very difficult process, and I must express my gratitude here to the editorial team for guiding me through several moments of doubt.) Ultimately, what helped me break through this challenge was to stop trying to think of grand gestures and instead focus on what mattered on an individual level. For me, nothing could be more important in a world that is so determined to oppress us than finding joy in life, and so I use this essay to share my thoughts on something that brings me immense and unbridled joy – lip syncing.
Lip syncing is, basically, the act of miming along to a song in a way that makes it appear as if the person who is miming is actually singing. It is the common standard of musical performance in South Asian cinema, where there is an entire industry of playback singers who create the vocals that actors on-screen “sing” to. In much of the West, it is part of a queer performance subculture that grew out of the US ballroom scene, where the competitor who was most convincing in selling the song would come away with the grand prize. In recent years, the practice has proliferated into the mainstream due to the growing popularity of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Lip Sync Battle.
When I actively seek joy these days, lip syncing brings me two regular outlets of unadulterated happiness. Funnily enough, these two instances straddle both ends of the spectrum of lip sync history – one, the grand spectacle of popular arts and culture; the other, the community-based collective empowerment of queer performance spaces. Funnier still, the more I reflected on these instances for Shuddhashar, the more I realised that they both ultimately meant the same thing to me on a deeply personal level.
While the pop culture example is arguably less individual, I think it is important to start there, if only because a lot of people would have seen it. In fact, according to the top result on YouTube, it has already been viewed at least 142 million times. I refer, of course, to the sensational performance of Rihanna’s hit song ‘Umbrella’ by the actor Tom Holland on Lip Sync Battle. It is a regular source of joy for me, and I am pretty certain a large chunk of those millions of views is from repeat fans like myself. Whenever I am in need of a quick and guaranteed way to lift my spirits, it does not get any better than watching one of my favourite actors zipping across the stage in a corset and fishnets, committing every ounce of his dance skills to nailing the complicated choreography.
Even in a world oversaturated with celebrity worship and hyperbole, it is difficult to overstate the incredible impact that performance has had. It is a regularly cited source of Tom Holland’s popularity, and it has even been the subject of detailed think-pieces. I have also seen how much it has meant to many young boys and men. There are countless heart-warming examples of young fans feeling empowered to try out dresses, heels, and make-up because a white cisgender man who plays one of the most popular superheroes of all time did the same in a way that paid homage to the craft of dance and the tradition of gender-bending performances.
This is all the more important given the long and painful history of how mainstream audiences and performers punch down on aspects like femininity and artforms like drag, using instances of cross-dressing as humiliating gags instead of amazing displays of skill and craftsmanship. Even as I write this, countries like the USA are attempting to ban drag performances, and many queer artforms are facing fresh rounds of suppression and hostility around the world. I do not want to try and ascribe a false sense of queer liberation to Tom Holland’s performance, but part of what makes it so unequivocally joyous is precisely the fact that a non-queer actor completes the (largely apolitical) lip sync performance with sincerity and dedication, despite reservations from others. In short, it is a nice reminder that people like me can find validation in mainstream spaces without having to justify it.
On the other side of how lip syncing brings me a deeply intimate sense of joy is my own participation in queer lip sync competitions as part of the House of Spice collective. The House of Spice is a group of queer brown performers based in the North of England, dedicated to showcasing brown excellence and spreading joy through visibility. We come from various diasporic backgrounds, and each of us specialise in different performance skills.
Based on the rich heritage that has grown out of the queer ballroom scene, we take part in events and Extravaganzas where lip syncing is one of the most popular categories. Having participated as a performer for the very first time in June 2022, I am still finding my feet and honing my strengths, but I know what my style is. I mix traditional elements of South Asian Kathak dance, focusing on hand movements and facial expressions, with popular Western music. Or, to put it more bluntly, I put a brown twist on pop music.
When I watch Tom Holland’s video, it is as an overjoyed spectator, one of countless others. When I perform, it is just me, alone with my muscle memory, my sense of rhythm, and my thoughts. Even if I am lucky to perform in front of others, the lighting and staging always provide a sense of stoic isolation. But far from feeling stifling, it brings with it a different sense of freedom. Having spent my entire life growing up in a world that told me that there is a singular, correct way to be masculine – and that I often fail at it – I now get to celebrate my full and authentic self, redefining what masculinity means to me instead of giving in to social pressures.
My flamboyant wrist movements, so often a source of bullying, help me express the song more fully. My dainty footfall, mocked and ridiculed for the better part of a decade, lets me stride across the stage with confidence. My painted lips and blended eyelids, which would have definitely resulted in being physically assaulted anywhere else, bring the focus back to how I interpret and sell the lyrics. And the best part of it all? When I finish, I am reminded that I am actually not alone – instead, I am surrounded by a community that loves and uplifts me, in a space that loudly celebrates difference as something to take pride in, not shut away in a closet.
On the surface, my own experiences of taking to the stage as a queer performer have nothing to do with Tom Holland and his viral dance skills. In many ways, that observation does hold true. However, I ultimately think that there is a common thread when it comes to these instances, and for many others as well. What we try to do, in our own different ways, is to enrich how the world likes to view things.
Masculinity is so often used as a toxic cudgel that upholds the worst forms of oppression. It feels joyous to watch a video that undermines gendered essentialism in such a massively mainstream way. And it feels empowering to bring my own culture and narrative into the arena, showcasing masculinity – and femininity, and everything else in between – in a new light.
I must conclude by admitting that, yes, I suppose I finally did end up writing a critical essay, but I hope it was still a fun read! May all our moments of intimacy be as radically joyous!