Touching Synchrony: Drag Queens, Skins, and the Touch of the Heroine

Introduction

Lip-syncing is one of the drag queen’s most valuable skills. She stands on stage, silently moving her lips to the voice of another, embodying that voice and persona in a performance style honed over generations of predecessors. Contrary to Esther Newton’s bold claim in her seminal drag ethnography Mother Camp, lip-syncing is not reserved for those not talented enough to sing (1972:44-46); rather, lip-syncing is a mainstay in the drag repertoire because of its singularly powerful mode of performance. London-based drag performer Rodent Decay (Fig. 1), when asked why she chooses to lip-sync and how such performances feel, told me that she lip-syncs because she feels an affinity with the ‘power in [the] voice’, a power that leads her into an ‘ecstatic […] trance state’ during performance. Intriguingly, Rodent went on to say that lip-syncing felt most powerful when the music was so loud that she could feel the music ‘resonating around [her]’: were this key component of amplitude to be absent, the performance would be significantly lacking. In this post, I will explore Rodent’s articulation of the importance of tactility in lip-syncing. The music must be so loud as to physically touch the performing queen, to bathe her in sound so that she might find a more convincing singularity between her silent body and the voice of the track. I will begin by exploring this relationship through contemporary theories of sound and amplitude, specifically Michael Heller’s theory of ‘listener collapse’; following this, I will draw together the tactility of lip-syncing with Rodent’s feeling of ecstasy, arguing for a cutaneous connection between voice and performing body, and drawing upon Didier Anzieu’s concept of the Skin-ego. Though these thoughts are borne out of conversations with Rodent, it is not my intention here to offer an ethnographic analysis of one example; rather, I am using Rodent’s premise as a way of continuing Anzieu’s metaphorical musings upon sonic interactions with the Skin-ego. What will become apparent is that the close somatosensory connection effected through increased amplification facilitates a stronger bond between performer and the original singer on track, a bond that not only creates a more powerful aesthetic performance, but also one that substantiates ideas of selfhood for the performer.

 

Fig. 1: Rodent Decay, used with the permission of Benedict Stewardson

 

Feeling Sound

Rodent Decay is a 23-year-old drag performer in East London, where she has earned much acclaim. In 2016 she won the highly competitive Lip-Sync 1000! competition, which pits the UK’s best drag queens against one another, and she also performs regularly with Sink the Pink, London’s premiere drag troupe. Rodent’s comments above, about feelings of ecstasy and the music resonating around her, arose from a conversation about her performance of Florence Welch’s ‘Spectrum’ in 2015. I asked about the connections she felt between herself and the track, to which she responded:

I think sometimes there’s a disconnect, and I’ve realised it’s to do with the sound quality of the room and the acoustics of the room. So I’ve been in places where I’ve done a lip-sync and it sounds like it’s not coming from me and there is such a disconnect but it’s because, like, the music isn’t resonating around me.

The disconnect about which Rodent speaks surely implies the inverse: that with the appropriate acoustics a connection is achieved. Such a connection is predicated on the sensation of the sound resonating around her, vibrating around her being. Theorists such as Rick Altman take this encompassing quality of sound as a given, arguing that by its very nature sound is not a straight line but rather a series of vibrations that reverberate and reflect around the space, encompassing the listener (1992:21); yet, Rodent’s quotation rightly argues against this. Without the appropriate acoustics, this wrapping of sound does not take place. This does not mean to say that sounds cannot take on Altman’s immersive properties, however. Indeed, Steven Connor suggests that such an immersion is made possible through an increase in volume, in which ‘amplified voices […] cancel or close up space’ (2000:34). To continue with Connor’s claim that amplified voices can close up space, an important space in drag lip-syncing is the space between the speaker system playing the track and the drag queen’s lips; the amplified voice, loud as it is, closes up the space between speaker system and drag queen, suggesting a singularity between the two. This connection is theorised by Michael Heller, who describes this somatosensory shift as ‘listener collapse’, in which ‘loud sound dissolves the ability to distinguish between interior and exterior worlds, especially in regard to sound and self (2015:45). Alongside amplified sound’s ability to fill space, this extreme volume also has the ability to collapse the boundaries of self and other, bringing the externality of the track into the performing drag queen and thereby suggesting a singularity between performing body and the voice of the track. The amplified voice resonates around Rodent to such a degree that she is able to feel the sound, fostering a tactile relationship that forms the basis of the feeling of unity between her silent body and the voice of the track. Without such extreme volume, the performance would remain as two distinct perceptual units.

 

Touching the Voice

To speak of touching the voice may seem a peculiar sensory shift: we hear the voice, but how can we touch something that is so diaphanous as voice? In reality though, sound is always created through touch: sound is contingent, created through the percussive interactions of one object with another. The voice is no different. Pushing air through the mouth, with the tongue pressed to the teeth, or biting the lips, or stroking the tongue against the inside of the mouth, voice and language are created (Connor 2004:164). Indeed, it is this sensation of touch that is one of the earliest ways we learn to differentiate sounds that come from ourselves and sounds that come from others. As Édith Lecourt notes, ‘it is in fact through the presence or absence of motor and tactile participation that sounds produced are differentiated from sounds external to the self: first fundamental advance on the sonorous plane in the establishment of the boundaries of the self’ (1990:215). So, if it is the tactile experience that differentiates sounds that are our own from sounds that are not, what is happening during lip-sync performance? The drag queen rehearses the movements of speech as she lip-syncs: she places her tongue in the appropriate positions, she stretches her mouth into vowel shapes, or purses her lips, coming into contact with herself at each moment. Yet she makes no sound; rather, it is the voice from the track that she hears. The experience of tactility would suggest that the voice is therefore perceived as one that comes from her own body, but how can this be reconciled with a voice that clearly comes from elsewhere? Firstly, Heller’s argument of ‘listener collapse’ and Rodent’s description go some way in arguing for this singularity: with the volume so great, the space between the sound and the drag queen is collapsed, exemplifying Heller’s dissolution of interior and exterior worlds. But secondly, the basic premise of voice supports, in theory, the drag queen’s claim to the voice of the track. Though voice is considered something that is most intrinsically our own, this is not entirely true; in fact, in any act of speech, the speaker is both speaker and listener, sending out their voice which returns to their own ears, creating a feedback loop between subject and object (Silverman 2008:77). The voice always leaves as subject and returns as object – it is no different in lip-syncing. The drag queen performs the actions of speech, and voice returns to her ears.

Why desire this tactile unity between oneself and the voice of another? What benefits might such a connection hold? Continuing with Lecourt and a psychoanalytical perspective, Didier Anzieu’s theory of the Skin-ego is useful here. Anzieu argues that the Skin-ego, rather than a prescriptive concept, is a broad metaphor for the creation and continuation of the ego throughout life (2016:6). At a basic level, the Skin-ego is ‘a mental image used by the child’s Ego during its early stages of development to represent itself as an Ego containing its psychical contents, based on its experience of the surface of the body’ (ibid:43). This cutaneous covering, however, is not only the literal skin on the surface of the body; it also includes a sonic component. Anzieu argues that one of the ways in which this Skin-ego is formed as a baby is through the gestural and vocal interactions it has with its mother. Alongside suckling and handling the infant, ‘sound wrapping [in the form of humming, speaking, singing etc.] supplements the tactile wrapping’ (ibid:109). Bathed in sound from the mother, this sonic skin that envelops the child offers another sense of containment and protection, a way of holding together the psyche.

Anzieu contends that though the Skin-ego acts as a container, it may be thick or thin, and certainly has open space in which to play (ibid:135). Interestingly, he makes specific mention of certain adult subjects aiming ‘to reinforce this cemented personal Skin-ego from the outside with a symbolic maternal skin, like Zeus’s aegis’ (ibid:135); whether through clothes, or makeup, or, indeed, music, the Skin-ego can be corroborated temporarily through secondary layers. The idea that one can augment the Skin-ego externally is important in the case of the drag queen. If the Skin-ego is constituted not only by the skin but also by sound, and particularly the mother’s voice, then it is certainly possible that the adoption of the voice of another in drag lip-sync performance is an attempt to harden the Skin-ego through a secondary sound wrapping.

Édith Lecourt, following Anzieu, offers continued theorisations of this secondary, specifically sonic, wrapping. Lecourt states that for a sonic wrapping (or sonic ‘envelope’) to function fully, it must ‘find underlying support, on the one hand in tactile and visual experience, and on the other hand in a mental elaboration of sonorous experience based on the ego-skin’ (1990:212). In drag lip-sync performance, these first predicates are fulfilled: the intense amplification of the track supplies the tactile and sonorous supports, wherein the sound takes on a tactile nature, and, though beyond the remit of this article, the physical regalia of the drag queen supplies the visual support. With these foundations achieved, Lecourt speaks of sonic baths, in which the subject is encompassed by sound. She specifically cites the use of Walkmans and listening to rock music as examples of everyday sonic wrappings in the modern world (1990:227). It is my conviction that the encompassing nature of the amplified voice about which Rodent speaks, the track ‘resonating around [her]’, aligns itself with Anzieu and Lecourt’s conceptions of the Skin-ego and sonic bathing: the tactile connection of voice with the singer on the track acts as a sonic wrapping for the drag queen, an augmenting of the Skin-ego, which when coupled with the more obvious and literal skin of the physical makeup and regalia of drag performance, has the potential to lead the performer into such ‘trance state[s]’, as Rodent claims.

 

Drag Queens and the Voice of the Heroine

The coextension of the Skin-ego through the voice of the other offers a form of protection: Anzieu argues that secondary wrappings de facto thicken the Skin-ego, but also much voice theory points towards the protection that can be afforded by disavowing one’s own voice in place of another’s (Jarman 2011:43). Yet there is perhaps a closer affinity between powerful female vocalists, to whom drag queens often lip-sync, and the gay male psyche, for drag queens are most often gay or queer men. Jack Harwell, a club-goer whom I met in an East London bar, mentioned a supplementary reason why these women are so important to gay men. Jack told me:

Little gay boys often grow up lip-syncing camp pop queens because they envy their glamour and sexuality, and they envy that they are validated by fame, themselves never validated by the heteropatriarchy around them... Queer people are drawn to lip-syncing because it allows you to embody a persona that society forbids you from being.

In a very real way, these voices, voices of ‘power’ as Rodent described them, are powerful in more than just their vocal virtuosity: they are powerful in their political resistance to, as Jack states, a heteropatriarchy that in many ways refuses to validate them. Jack’s statement echoes Richard Dyer’s theorisation of the gay male fascination with Judy Garland. For Dyer, Garland became such an icon for gay men because she expressed the same feelings of battling against a patriarchal institution that endeavoured to impress upon her an acceptable image, one that lay incredible emotional taxes upon her, but one that ultimately she would overcome, constantly searching for an ‘over the rainbow’ (Dyer 2004:146). To feel an affinity with heroines who succeed against the heteropatriarchy offers hope for the gay male. If their heroines are able to overcome these adversities, then there is a chance they can, too. In lip-syncing, this affinity between the singer and the gay male is increased. The performer, whether a drag queen or a ‘little gay boy’ in his bedroom, is able to feel the voice of the heroine within them, to wrap themselves in the protective layers of their voice, extending their Skin-ego through a relationship of sound and touch.

 

Sasha Velour, “This Woman’s Work”

 

Concluding Thoughts

Anzieu describes the Skin-ego as a metaphor, rather than a fully formed concept, one that he hoped people would elaborate upon and explore to their own ends. The ideas I have sketched out here seek to use the Skin-ego as a model within which we might better understand lip-syncing as a personal form of performance, and explore lip-syncing as an art form, rather than Newton’s synonymising of the craft with an inability to sing. Literally embodying the voice – that most personal signifier of self (Jarman 2011:2) – can be an incredibly emboldening experience for the performing drag queen, wrapped in a vocal membrane, feeling the voice both outside and in.

 

References

Altman, Rick. 1992. “General Introduction: Cinema as Event”. In Sound Theory Sound Practice, edited by Rick Altman, 1-14. London: Routledge.

Anzieu, Didier. 2016. The Skin-Ego. London: Karnac Books.

Connor, Steven. 2000. Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Connor, Steven. 2004. “Edison’s Teeth: Touching Hearing”. In Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening and Modernity, edited by Veit Erlmann, 153-172. Oxford: Berg.

Dyer, Richard. 2004. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. London: Routledge.

Heller, Michael. 2015. “Between Silence and Pain: Loudness and the Affective Encounter.” Sound Studies 1(1):40-58.

Jarman, Freya. 2011. Queer Voices: Technologies, Vocalities, and the Musical Flaw. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lecourt, Édith. 1990. “The Musical Envelope”. In Psychic Envelopes, edited by Didier Anzieu, 211-235. London: Karnac Books.

Newton, Esther. 1972. Mother Camp. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Silverman, Kaja. 2008. The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

 

Biography

Jacob Mallinson Bird is a DPhil student in musicology at the University of Oxford. He is particularly interested in voice theory and psychoanalysis. His current research focuses on the deconstruction of the voice in drag lip-sync performance, and the implications of lip-syncing for constructions of the self and queer identity. 

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