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Karaoke and the Utility of the Already Sung

Karaoke's reception in different cultural contexts reflects differing attitudes toward the potential and power of so scripted a vocal performance.
Rob Drew

Issue #56, Summer 2001

In 1992 the media blitz surrounding the arrival of karaoke in the U.S. was at its peak. Nineteen ninety-two was also an election year, and karaoke won the dubious distinction of a citation in presidential campaign rhetoric, as George Bush found a way to use it against the ascendant Clinton-Gore ticket. 'Don't kid yourselves, America,' Bush told a crowd in Houston, 'we're not running against the comeback kids. We're running against the karaoke kids, and they'll sing any tune they think will get them elected.' The implication was that the Democrats were frauds — and, by extension, that karaoke was a fraudulent art. Yet Bush failed to acknowledge his own rhetorical debts: Only a few months earlier, a member of British Prime Minister John Major's cabinet had tagged the Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock in almost identical terms: 'Karaoke Kinnock ... he'll sing any song you want him to.' Indeed, reading their prepared material from teleprompters, how many of our postmodern political orators could stand to reflect upon the origins of their own tunes?

platters Among possible descriptors for karaoke, 'original' is not one that springs to mind. The best karaoke software manufacturers, the ones whose discs are prized most by performers, are those who make an effort to replicate every sonic minutia of the original hits, those whose video-fed lyric displays include the most offhand phrasings of the original vocalists. Karaoke, then, is the most scripted sort of song performance imaginable. Its communicative possibilities are both opened up and closed off by its layered context of lyrics, background music, and prior performance. And its reception in different cultural contexts reflects differing attitudes toward the potential and power of so scripted a vocal performance.

If one thing strikes Western observers of Eastern karaoke, it is its imitativeness. Christine Yano, for instance, observes how Japanese karaoke singers 'listen repeatedly to the hit songs as sung by professional singers, attempting to emulate every inflection, ornament, and nuance.' Such a mode of performance can easily play into Western stereotypes of Japanese conformity, and so needs to be understood against the backdrop of Japanese culture. In Japan, imitation is acknowledged as a necessary phase in the acquisition of many valued cultural skills. Traditional Japanese arts such as martial arts, calligraphy, and flower arrangement are distinguished by the morpheme doo, or 'way' (budoo, shodoo, kadoo). Authorized masters preside over each art, and pass them down by modeling stylized series of actions. Such imitation eventually becomes the basis for subtle (often invisible, to Western eyes) expressions of creativity and individuality. Yet it is not thought possible to learn an art and use it creatively without first imitating it; the inexplicable, somatic 'way' of the art can only be internalized through doing. This mode of conduct, rooted in Japan's most austere and esoteric disciplines, courses through the nation's mercurial popular culture. It is only half-jokingly that the Japanese speak of a karaoke-doo, a way of karaoke. And it comes as no surprise that, in addition to its effects on nightlife, karaoke has sparked a cottage industry in singing instruction in Japan; 'How much tuition have you paid?' has become a standard gibe directed at karaoke prodigies.

Yet the real 'masters' under whom Japanese karaokists study are not their singing teachers, but the enka balladeers and Western-style pop stars of the Japanese recording industry. Indeed, one of the most conspicuous effects of karaoke in Japan has been its invigoration of the country's music business. Starting in the early 1990s, largely due to the introduction of arcade-style karaoke rooms, the craze spread from the late-night, high-priced world of 'salarymen' to the general population. This intensified the demand for Japanese-language pop music.

Up until 1990, there had never been more than three regionally produced, million-selling singles in a year; since 1992, there have never been fewer than 13. Japanese record companies now include vocal-less versions on many CD singles for home practice. All this suggests a particular way of receiving not only karaoke but popular songs themselves. The song confronts people not as an inviolate object but as a cultural resource; the recording artist stands less as an author or owner, more as a teacher of the song. In Japan, songs are for singing, the tools through which one learns to sing, displays singing competence, and encourages the adoption of singing roles.

By contrast, within the elite cultural tradition of the West, what is most valued in music, as in all art, is the creative output of a singular mind. Great art is regarded as that which transcends tradition and convention. We've grown accustomed to hearing such arguments deployed against popular culture, which is so often dismissed as homogeneous and unoriginal, yet they're also often floated from within popular culture. Among rock musicians and critics, there is no more stinging epithet than 'derivative' — this despite the fact that most rockers learn their craft, doo-style, by imitating live or mediated mentors. Such an esthetic tends to undervalue not just formulaic or familiar music, but any sort of musical activity that doesn't involve sitting down and writing songs (hence the low status frequently accorded cover versions.)

Hideho! If cover versions are bad popular music according to conventional wisdom, then karaoke performances can't be anything more than bad cover versions. In the Anglo-American lexicon, karaoke often serves as a metaphor for anything deemed shopworn or soulless. Predictably, as it gains a foothold in Euro-American nightlife, the specter arises of karaoke replacing live entertainment. Like sound technologies from the microphone to the drum machine, karaoke gets accused of substituting the 'direct' encounters of 'real' musical performance with a body-snatcher inhumanity. 'It's so anti-music,' says a former talent booker for a Toronto rock club turned karaoke bar, 'so anti-life.'

However, a case can be made for karaoke's esthetic worth. While it's unlikely to snuff out live music any time soon, the larger issue is whether karaoke's derivativeness limits its cultural value. Much of karaoke's artfulness consists precisely in wresting something meaningful from so scripted a context. With chart success and heavy rotation, pop records acquire an aura of inevitability. Only a skilled karaokist can take a song that seems like a known quantity and put it across in a way that's intense, personal, real — a first, an event. Moreover, though the background music is programmed, the performer needn't be. Anyone who's witnessed (as I have) a karaokist deliver Helen Reddy's 'I Am Woman' in the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger, or sing the 'Gilligan's Island' theme to the tune of 'Amazing Grace,' or recast John Lennon's love songs as love-of-food songs ('Woman' as 'Chicken,' 'Starting Over' as 'Eating Leftovers') might dispute karaoke's lack of originality.

It would be a mistake to judge all karaoke performers against such quirky, clever (and rare) examples. Too often, we evaluate musical performances based on their novelty: their assemblage of new sounds and utterances, or new combinations of melody and lyric and dialect. By this reckoning, musical activities stand or fall on what is written or conceived or 'composed.' Yet most of us don't compose songs; we embody and enact them. We move to their rhythms, quote snatches of them at odd moments — and sing them. Whether faithful or foolish, visionary or prosaic, a song performance is an exercise in role playing. No less than stage actors, singers don vocal costumes and momentarily succumb to vocal alter egos. Even chiming along with canned accompaniment to an indifferent crowd in a dive at the edge of nowhere, a singer locates herself within the history of her song and the complex of meanings that derive from its genre and lyrics and prior performances. The musical menu of a typical American karaoke bar includes thousands of songs in dozens of categories, a pop treasure trove that will fit most any performer with a suitable vocal fa.ade. There is the potential not only for display, but also for fantasy and epiphany.

Karaoke is not just a personal resource for defining and reinventing selves; it's also a social resource. A karaoke performer positions her audience as well as herself; consciously or not, she speaks for them and makes a claim on them, offering a particular vision of their realities and possibilities. No less than any other song performance, a karaoke performance carries a normative force and sets a standard for community and contestation. To understand song performance as such challenges us to put aside our fetish for the original and acknowledge the social utility of already-made music.

Let me illustrate with a story from my ethnographic study of karaoke: an evening at Spanky's (a pseudonym), a Philadelphia college bar. On an early September evening in 1993, one thing everyone at Spanky's seems to share is an utter disdain for the bar owner's latest acquisition, a cut-rate karaoke system. The owner, Nick, is struggling to lure some performers. One likely explanation for the crowd's reluctance is that Nick has seen fit to purchase only nine karaoke discs containing 162 songs. Of these, only about a dozen songs have been released within the past decade, the pop-conversant years of most of those present. And of these, most are teen-idol tunes loathed by college hipsters. Thus, all but a few selections hail from the hinterlands of this crowd's musical map. Their response is to remake every number as a novelty hit, a one-line joke.

When a birthday boy is forced onstage by his buddies for a go at 'Sexual Healing,' he transmutes Marvin Gaye's feverish mating call into a whiny wake-up call worthy of a young Jerry Lewis: GET UUH-UUUP! GET UUH-UUUP! When three guys grab the mikes for 'Burnin' Love,' their front man embellishes Elvis Presley's canonical text with bits of smart-alecky exegesis: Help me, I'm flamin', must be a hundred and nine — Excuse me, but anyone who's a hundred and nine degrees is technically dead! ... Burnin' burnin' burnin', And nothin' can cool me — What stupid lyrics! He continues in the same vein after the group segues into the Beatles' 'Lady Madonna': Listen to the music playin' in your head — She's crazy! She's alone and she hears music! She's nuts!

And when a short dude ascends for Elton John's 'Your Song,' his subtle smirk hints that he's up to something. It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside. He croons the words mawkishly, holding the mike close to his mouth, keeping a straight face. His exaggerated sincerity already has the audience snickering, anticipating his inevitable break, which finally arrives. It's for people like you who keep me turned ... OOOAAAHHWWNN! The word on extends into a deafening belch, sending the crowd into stitches and blowing away any inkling of seriousness in one gigantic gust.

I watch all this with mixed emotions. As a student of culture, I'm well aware that pop stars, songs, and genres only come to life by virtue of what their listeners make of them. It's no surprise seeing the Baby Busters at Spanky's dancing on the graves of boomer idols like Presley, Gaye, and Lennon. As its chroniclers have detailed, this is a wary, jaded, unromantic generation. Presley's 'Burnin' Love' and even Gaye's 'Sexual Healing' must seem lukewarm to a group whose childhood limits on sexual expression were defined by tender titles like 'Push, Push (in the Bush)' and 'Boom, Boom, Boom (Let's Go Back to My Room).' The Beatles' 'Lady Madonna,' trying to make ends meet with her children at her feet, excites no great pity in kids who, having grown up with Carter Presidency images of economic malaise and Reagan-era images of welfare queens, are more worried about supporting themselves when they get out of college. Elton John's 'Your Song,' a heart-on-the-sleeve conceit typical of early-1970s, confessional songwriting, is unlikely to resonate with what Neil Howe and Bill Strauss call 'the least emotionally demonstrative of all American generations this century.'

I understand all this, yet, born as I was at the tail end of the Baby Boom, I find my generational defenses aroused. Where do these post-Reagan preppies get off making a mockery of Elvis and the Beatles? Elton John cloaked himself in feathers and funky glasses so he could speak from the heart, and many of his tunes have touched me. Who are these whippersnappers to pooh-pooh him? If, according to 1970s sociologists like Christopher Lasch and Richard Sennett, if the cohort I grew up with suffered from an obsession with intimacy and authenticity, then the generation represented at Spanky's often strikes me as just the opposite: hard-shelled, severe. Their little sendups drip with contempt. Where, I wonder, do their sympathies lie?

I'm mulling all this over when a pair of gangly boys takes the stage. They've culled something interesting from Nick's meager song list: Prince's 'When Doves Cry.' The record was released in the mid-1980s, around the time the national divorce rate peaked, and the sex-saturated media started spreading the word that sex could kill you. The Spanky's crew would have been in their mid-teens at the time. They're the ones who made the song a #1 hit, and flocked to the film that helped popularize it, Purple Rain, in which Prince played a cool, sexy rock singer whose parents' abuse reduces him to a confused bundle of rage; whose father's sole words of advice to him are, 'Don't get married.'

doves cry I've heard this song many times, yet it's always felt just out of reach. Maybe it's the music's hypnotic simplicity, or the ethereal imagery of the lyrics. The boys sing: Dig, if you will, a picture, of you and I engaged in a kiss. They hardly glance at the monitor, yet they reproduce Prince's inflections (if not his timbre) flawlessly; they have the song down cold. They're smiling, but not like the earlier performers: Where the others seemed disdainful, these boys seem almost embarrassed. The original vocal packs even a kiss with more sensual urgency than the bluest movie, and the original vocal looms large in this performance. The song's images grow progressively surreal: a courtyard with oceans of violets, animals striking poses and sensing the lovers' heat. They express a desire that can't be consummated — a desire that's starting to break forth in the boys' quivering voices.

How can you just leave me standing, alone in a world that's so cold? As the song's cool eroticism gives way to confusion and desperation, the smiles on the performers' faces turn to grimaces, and their voices turn pleading. They mimic Prince's call-and-response with himself, one of them punctuating the other's singing with plaintive highlights. Spectators scream and sway and wave their arms in unison. A boy in the corner drums frantically on a wall; a table of girls holds up lighters in tribute. Suddenly these impassive college kids have gone from dabbling in karaoke to throwing themselves into it headlong.

It occurs to me that in Prince's song, as (according to Howe and Strauss) among his Gen X audience, 'casual sex doesn't exist anymore.' Sexual contact — human contact — is shot through with fear and stress and power. For a generation plagued with STDs, date rape, teen pregnancy, and parental neglect, Prince's elusive rendition of interpersonal bonding must hit home. For kids coming of age in an era of diminishing expectations — regarding not only sex, but family, friendships, careers — his words must seem emblematic: Maybe I'm just too demanding, maybe you're never satisfied. Watching the crowd at Spanky's howl in what could be ecstasy or agony, I think of Naomi Wolf's words: 'What looks from the outside like an inert generation whose silence should provoke contempt is actually a terrified generation whose silence should inspire compassion.'

'That's the best song to sing,' I hear one of the boys say as they descend to frenzied applause and, at this bar, it certainly is. In the following weeks at Spanky's, it becomes a ritual: After several indifferent recitals of moldy oldies, someone takes on 'When Doves Cry' and instantly works the crowd to a fever pitch. The song becomes a crowd favorite, the sort of number that can prompt a roomful of strangers to suddenly sing and move and rejoice as one. Virtually every karaoke bar has its crowd favorites; what all have in common is that they seem to crystallize the experience of the people who celebrate them and, as a result, to constitute these people as members of a common culture.

The Prince song focuses on the common desires and dreads felt by Spanky's college-age crowd at the century's end. At another Philly bar whose karaoke happy hour is frequented by refugees from surrounding corporate parks, the hands-down favorite is a pair of guys in suits, ties, and sunglasses who call themselves the Business Boys and rant their way through 'Takin' Care of Business,' a 1970s hard-rock paean to slacking off. At a good-ol'-boy haunt in suburban Tampa, the most popular of many popular country numbers is the bluegrass classic 'Rocky Top,' a nostalgic evocation of rural Appalachia that acquires new meaning when set against the New South's centerless sprawl. Such performances serve as lodestars that crowds fix upon to situate themselves. They bring everyday experiences into focus and thereby allow audiences to see shared dimensions of their assorted lives. And though this power of articulation is more conspicuous the more celebrated the performance, it is there to some degree in every karaoke performance: Every rock or soul or country number that says, we are rock or soul or country people.

What makes crowd favorites worth dwelling upon, aside from the fact that they're the performances crowds themselves choose to dwell upon, is that they might prompt us to rethink our bias against secondhand performances. As it happens, the songs that undergo the least modification in karaoke bars are, generally, the ones performers and audiences feel most passionate about. These songs represent the opening of karaoke's communicative possibility. Performers may seem hemmed in, even oppressed, by these texts, but only because they impart so much meaning and value. If, as Sally Moore and Barbara Myerhoff have written, 'an essential element of the sacred is its unquestionability,' such songs do have something sacred about them for their celebrants — which is precisely what makes them such vital resources for cultural definition.

Rob Drew teaches Communication at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. His book Karaoke Nights: An Ethnographic Rhapsody is due to be published by AltaMira Press in September 2001.

Copyright © 2001 by Rob Drew. Collage "Hideho!" 2001 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.