Last night, I participated in the great Japanese/American past-time involving beer, electronics and solicitations from random strangers. Get your mind out of the gutter, I’m not talking about some sort of weird robot fetish porn, I’m talking about karaoke.
I’ve been working a lot lately. A LOT lately. And with the semester peeking its honking warty nose around the corner, I’m going to be working a lot more. Luckily, I have some near and dear local friends who a) hadn’t seen me in a while, b) don’t take “no” for an answer, and c) are regulars at this past time. With a bit of friendly nudging (which I am eternally grateful for), they got me out and singing. Thank god I can rattle off showtunes like it was my job…. Well sometimes it is I guess…
So here’s the funny thing about karaoke: regular people who live regular lives get a moment (or sometimes ten) to stand up in front of a roomful of strangers and perform. The quality of this performance does not seem to deter anyone (though it does run the gambit). In fact, most people seem to regard karaoke as a step above singing in the shower. Somehow the formula of enough beer + lyrics + provided accompaniment and backup vocals makes what is usually a private act public.
And you can tell that for most of the people out there, this is a private act. My mother (hi mom!) always says that it drives her crazy when singers sing with their eyes closed. Well she would have been twitching all night. Beyond eyes closed, most people actually sang with their back to the crowd, desperately hovering around the screen with the scroll-by lyrics like a lifeline in a tossing turning ocean. In some ways, it reminded me of that girl at any party. You know. THAT girl. The one with the high pitched squeal who gets way too drunk and then says “don’t LOOK at me” while prancing around wearing only a towel for whatever random reason that made sense at the time because everyone had had a few. There’s a sort of ironic self-consciousness that comes with the self-induced scenario of karaoke that most people can’t get past. “Sure, I’ll sing, but I won’t perform!”
Maybe it’s because people don’t know how to perform. Maybe I’ve just spent too much of my life in the theatre. But here’s what really got me:
I did it too. Oh yea, I was lettin’ it all hang out and belting to my little heart’s content (sometimes better than others), but I certainly wasn’t performing. There was something about the situation, something about the crowd of people only half listening, something about a lack of separation between me the performer and them the audience that made me not want to (for whatever reason) turn ON my inner performer.
In a way, Karaoke is the ultimate Bakhtinian Carnival. Shedding our everyday mantles, we walk into the karaoke bar and waiters become rock stars. Beggars become kings. Ideas, truths, narratives, and yea the very focus of the event itself (the performance) is repeatedly and continually contested, tested and the entire cycle begins again. Performers emerge from the crowd and carry the narrative for a period of time before disappearing once more into the fold of bar flies. We find Bakhtin’s “jolly relativity” in the intermingling of alternative voices which in turn de-privileges any one hegemonic authoritative voice. Perhaps the songs being sung aren’t entirely “high culture”, but certainly there is an intermingling in a karaoke bar of high, low, short, tall, good singers, bad singers, and just about any other variation therein you can think of.
One thing, to me, is certain. Next week I will be bringing my carnival mask with gusto. And I will need to brush up on my Carrie Underwood in the interim…