A Hundred Million Lip-Syncing Preteens
Standing outside a Starbucks in Carson, California, 15-year-old Bryson Conklin is showing me how he records a Musical.ly. Or is it a Musical? Whatever the term is, it applies to the singular use of the popular lip-syncing app Musical.ly. Conklin’s what they call a “Muser,” and this is his art. I watch as he cocks his phone’s camera at an angle above his head and begins silently lip-syncing to a slowed-down version of Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange.” His free hand spins through motions: pointing at the camera, flying outward in a wave, zipping across his lips in an A-OK gesture. From a distance, he looks like a mime attempting to FaceTime. He’s making this up on the spot; I saw him pick the song just a few minutes earlier and listen to it once through. But his graceful, mute choreography doesn’t feel improvised at all.
Conklin’s mom, Lawana, watches; she’s used to seeing him step away to do his smartphone soliloquies, and she gives me a proud mom’s “I know, isn’t he amazing?” look.
Conklin, who goes by thekingbryson on Musical.ly, is one of millions of Musers taking lip-syncing and turning it into a new genre, a new kind of physical language. Conklin’s 15-second videos reveal a postmillennial ventriloquist; he mouths the words but controls the viewer’s attention by shifting with the beat. He will blur himself during deep thumps and repeat a frame each time the lyric repeats. He’ll pull the camera down as one hand rises, to give viewers the sense that they are sinking. (He paired this move with Justin Bieber’s “Cold Water,” in which Bieber sings, “If you feel you’re sinking, I will jump right over.”)
I ask Conklin how he does it, and if he has any tips. “I’m not even sure. I guess it’s something that just came to me,” he responds. It’s as if I just asked him how to take a good selfie. There’s no exact science, you just do it.
Conklin isn’t the first to master this choreography, nor did he invent it. He says he learned by watching a Muser called TheyLoveArii (5.44 million fans), a 16-year-old named Ariana Renee Trejos from South Florida who was turned on to the app by her best friend, 15-year-old Ariel Martin. On Musical.ly, Martin goes by BabyAriel and is probably the app’s most popular Muser. She has 13 million fans, and many cite her work as the origin of the distinctive Musical.ly style. Ask any fan about the app’s stars, and they’ll also likely mention the cherubic 13-year-old Jacob Sartorius, who is the resident Bieber-esque heartthrob and who just released a single called “Hit or Miss.” In a perfect circle of promotion, thousands of Musers have already lip-synced to the song on the app.
Musical.ly was originally an app called Cicada started by friends Alex Zhu and Louis Yang, who wanted to build a place to make and share short-form educational videos. The pair raised $250,000 in capital before realizing that, as Zhu told Business Insider in May, “it was doomed to failure.” After watching a bunch of teenagers on the Bay Area’s Caltrain take selfies while playing music from their smartphones, Zhu realized he could easily combine the two by pivoting Cicada.
Zhu and Yang didn’t initially intend the app for lip-syncing, but they realized how it was being used after a curious spike in downloads in the spring of 2015. In April of that year, 2.2 million people watched Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jimmy Fallon lip-sync to songs like “Shake It Off” and “Like a Prayer” on the premiere of Spike TV’s soon-to-be-hit series Lip Sync Battle, which was itself based on a segment from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. After tuning in to see their favorite celebrities perform, kids were heading to their phones to search “lip-sync,” and they were finding Musical.ly.
Two years later, the app has more than 11 million videos being uploaded per day and more than 100 million users, according to Musical.ly president Alex Hoffman. Lip-syncing, of course, is an old sport — just attend any drag show. It’s widely believed among drag queens that Fallon’s lip-sync segment ripped off the final round of RuPaul’s Drag Race, “Lip Sync for Your Life.” “Straight people always steal what gay people do and try to make it their own,” says Logan Jennings, a 27-year-old Los Angeles drag queen who goes by the moniker Meatball. I had shown him Musical.ly just a few days earlier, and he was already hooked. “I went in being like, ‘These are toddlers; what are they doing?’ And by the end of an hour and a half, I was on my sofa like, ‘What are they doing, and how are they doing it?’ It’s incredible.” Jennings’s tips for a burgeoning lip-syncer? “Overact and overenunciate. Let them see your tonsils.”
Like many new social media platforms, Musical.ly has attracted teens and preteens. But scrolling through reveals plenty of parents lip-syncing or acting alongside their children in a two-person bit. Kiran Ijaz, a 38-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama, who goes by LailaYouLove, started on the app after her son, Sami, showed it to her. “Even on the days when nothing is going on, we’re always like, ‘Oh, come on, let’s make something,’” she says over Snapchat video chat, pointing her smartphone at 11-year-old Sami sitting next to her. “Me and Sami have so many jokes. He is my son, but he is also like a brother.” Her other son, who is 16, walks past the camera. Kiran and Sami giggle. They tell me he used to be into the app, but not anymore. “I feel like it is for a 6- to 11-year-old range, and then maybe skips over the rest of the teenagers,” says Kiran.
Harry Mead, a 14-year-old from London, says that it’s the app’s closed network that keeps him active and his parents encouraging. “I think it’s mainly because [with] Musical.ly, you can’t be searched on the internet, which my mum is really happy about,” he says. Not that the app doesn’t want its users to share their creations outside the Musical.ly network, but the community of superusers is still small enough that they feel protected. I heard again and again from Musers about how supportive the platform is. “The app really celebrates self-expression and positivity, which is the perfect recipe for friendship,” says Hoffman.
A small but powerful community of influencers can be a positive thing, but it can have a vicious side, too. After all, we’re mostly dealing with middle-schoolers here. They all know one another, at least online, and collaborate as well as compete for followers and fans. It doesn’t take more than a Google search to find evidence of Musical.ly in-fighting. And it comes from the app’s biggest stars: In June, a video leaked of a 14-year-old named Loren Gray Beech (who goes by lorenbeech on the app and has 9.63 million followers) mocking fellow star BabyAriel. Posted by the website Superfame, the video shows Beech condescendingly mimicking Martin, saying: “You guys seen my YouTube video? I just posted a new YouTube video. You should definitely go watch it and leave a like if you enjoyed. I worked really hard on it. I am trying really hard to make YouTube videos and be a YouTuber. Because I don’t want to be labeled as a Musical.ly person. I am not a Muser at heart. I am a YouTuber at heart. Swear to God.”
In this world, the ultimate diss, it seems, is implying that a Muser is betraying Musical.ly for another platform — and often that’s YouTube, which is more monetizable. For now, Musical.ly is a mostly sheltered realm for early teens (and sometimes their parents). But it’s an open question whether Musical.ly will grow with its fans, or whether they’ll grow out of it. Because when you become big enough to be an influencer — when something that started as fun becomes your job — there’s always the question of what’s next.
BabyAriel is currently traveling the country on the DigiTour, where fans will pay to meet her; Conklin and his mother are planning a KingBryson clothing line. And these teens know that in-fighting is bad for business: Beech publicly apologized to Martin and her fans. On Instagram, she wrote: “Social media has changed me in so many ways.… I realize what I did was wrong. But as a 14-year-old girl I am prone to making mistakes. Sorry for offending anyone. I am sorry.”