Lip-syncing the latest wave in teen Web world

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

She is 12, maybe 13, old enough to know all the lyrics to a rock song, but her smooth skin and soft features betray that she has only just entered adolescence. As the 3 minutes, 22 seconds of buffered video footage begins, she grabs a pair of headphones and begins bopping her head in time to the bass drum. She smiles. She grimaces. She adjusts the volume. And then, right before the vocals start, she turns toward the camera. Her large brown eyes look right at the viewer as she begins to mouth the words to Bloc Party's "Banquet": "A heart of stone/a smoking gun/I can give you life/I can take it away."

It is a moment at once innocent and emotional, personal and pure enough to make you cry.

It is the kind of thing that used to stay behind closed bedroom doors, when bored teens would grab a hairbrush as a mike and privately fantasize in front of a mirror about being the next hot pop star. But just as teenagers have laid bare their diaries to the public on Web sites such as LiveJournal, they are now broadcasting these sometimes awkward, sometimes slickly choreographed performances on video Web sites, allowing strangers to peek into their worlds as they channel their favorite musicians, trying on a dream identity even as they try to discover their own.

A few of the more outrageous lip-sync videos have become Internet phenomenons, forwarded from one viewer to the next. Millions of people have watched the two Chinese college students who call themselves the Back Dormitory Boys lip-sync with conviction (and a whole lot of swaying) to the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" and they have since become full-fledged celebrities in China.

Pomme and Kelly, two 15-year-olds from the Netherlands, have made a total of 10 videos. The girls developed such a large following in the last few months that they became overwhelmed by the attention and recently decided to take their videos down from the Internet. (Aware of the creepier elements of their fame, they didn't want to use their last names, or say where exactly in the Netherlands they are from because "weird people could use that to find out lots of information about us.")

Pomme and Kelly's videos have a silly, high-energy and specifically youthful quality -- they flail their arms, they use such props as paper money and cell phones, and Kelly has a predilection toward making faces at the camera. The girls use a Canon Powershot A250 and never edit their videos (because they don't know how). Their catalog includes songs such as Shania Twain's "Ka-Ching," Afroman's "I Got High" and Britney Spears' "Toxic." Their costumes -- scarves in their hair, oversized sunglasses, goofy hats -- are further proof that these two friends still have one foot firmly planted in the dress-up games of childhood.

"We just like to act weird (in front of the camera)," they wrote in an e-mail interview, still unsure of what to make of all the attention. "We love to make a fool of ourselves just by doing lip-syncing on weird songs, and apparently people seem to like it."

They're right. In March, 27-year-old Ben Petro from Brisbane, Australia, launched GoogleIdol.com, a Web site that allows visitors to vote for their favorite lip-sync videos. "I spend a few hours every day slacking on Google Video and I saw a lip-sync video by these two girls from the Netherlands and it kind of hit me, this is really becoming a bit of a craze," Petro said. "I thought there should be some kind of competition. And then `Idol' popped into my mind."

In the first week the site was active, GoogleIdol received more than 7,500 hits. By the time the first competition ended, more than 40,000 people had voe and Kelly won.

Gary Brolsma, a bespectacled 19-year-old from Saddle Brook, N.J., became something of a media phenomenon after he made a lip-sync video to a Romanian dance song called "Dragostea Din Tei" (he called it "Numa Numa") in which he repeatedly performed his variation of the raise-the-roof arm motion. He was interviewed on "Good Morning America," made an appearance on VH1's "Best Week Ever" and was featured in a New York Times article before he decided to stop speaking with the media.

Andy Greenwald, a music journalist and author of "Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo," says it's not surprising that teens are broadcasting these personal videos to the world. "It's the teenage sensibility of LiveJournal and My Space," he said. "The only things you share are your innermost thoughts. Teenage vulnerability is the official language of the Internet.

"Teenagers are shy and stumbly and nervous, and these songs give them the words they want to be saying," Greenwald said. "Kids have always put themselves in the role of the song: `That's my life, that's me.' Now they can literally perform it as `me.'" s `me.'"

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