Karaoke culture

Karaoke (from the Japanese word meaning ‘‘empty orchestra’) is a form of entertainment for millions of people who would like to be Madonna or Sinatra. The amateur crooner, a wannabe Madonna or Sinatra, replaces the original singer whose voice is turned down or completely switched off, and performs instead of the original. The amateur singer does not even need to know the lyrics which can be read off the screen. The karaoke machine was invented in the early seventies by Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue. Inoue never had his invention patented, allowing others to collect the revenues his idea has been generating ever since. Inoue has been awarded the alternative Nobel Peace Prize by the US science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for inventing karaoke, thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.

Critics of culture are people who regard phenomena such as the craze for tattoos as something more than a craze. I myself belong to this species: I tend to regard karaoke as something more than the screaming of an anonymous individual without any talent who is trying to keep up with the background music of, let’’s say, I Will Survive. Karaoke reinforces the democratic idea that anyone can, if s/he wants to, but also that everyone wants to, if s/he can. The inventor Daisuke Inoue himself is a modest man who sees his contribution as having helped to change the Japanese people – normally very reticent about showing their feelings – for the better. Once they have seized the microphone, nothing will stop the Japanese.

The idea of karaoke basically derives from old fairground mock-up photographs. An anonymous person sticks his/her head into the opening in a photograph and then, for a few pennies, buys the joy provided by a picture in the company of a famous person, wearing the costume of a historical figure or being in famous scenery.  Even I have a picture from a visit to Universal Studios in Los Angeles, in which Clark Gable holds my frail body in his arms. Although the body belongs to Vivien Leigh, the head is undoubtedly mine. The mock picture from Gone with the Wind was taken over thirty years ago and the sweet memory cost me one US dollar.

What is the basis of the attraction of karaoke, a form of entertainment that has conquered Japan (and apparently is still very popular there) and at some stage spread around the world? Presumably, what makes it so attractive is its simplicity and stupidity as well as the ambiguity of its participants’’ situation: by singing someone else’’s song the amateur honours the original (Sinatra or Madonna) while, at the same time, debunking its musical authority through his/her amateur rendition, which makes the original appear ridiculous. The theft of the star aura or, in other words, the overthrowing of hierarchy, never goes beyond harmless entertainment. The performer is anonymous.

Of course it is possible to imagine other forms of karaoke entertainment. Some extremely rich person might get the idea, for instance, of hiring the Bolshoi Ballet, commissioning a performance of The Swan Lake and casting his wife, mistress or himself in the main dancing roles. There are many variations. However, what matters most is the anonymity. Why? Because our gesture would have a completely different meaning if we signed it with our full name and surname. In that case, our howling to the rhythm of, say, Mamma Mia would not be understood as a humble imitation of the original but rather as an act of  subversion, homage, parody and so on. An authorial gesture, unlike an anonymous one, carries a different message, the same as the one Marcel Duchamp sent to the world when he drew a moustache and beard on the Mona Lisa, or Andy Warhol, when he produced his serial portraits of famous personalities. Many contemporary works of art that are based on quotations or that rely on changing the original intention of a traditional art project, might be called the art of karaoke if they did not bear a clear authorial signature. For karaoke is an entertainment of anonymous people whose work remains unsigned.

Well, not quite. There are also the examples proving the opposite, when famous play the game of karaoke. The film Romance and Cigarettes (2005) is something of a karaoke film, a musical in which great actors such as James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet and Steve Buscemi are having fun – unfortunately without  demonstrating much talent – as they draw on the energy of Tom Jones’’s mighty voice and his hits. Mamma Mia! (2008) is a film musical and a global hit in which equally great actors (Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth and others) are having fun singing hits by Abba, a once famous Swedish pop band. The only things that hold  these films together, just as in karaoke, are our familiarity with the original hits (by Abba, Tom Jones and others) which the audience brings along and the energy contained in the evergreens rather than the new (and pathetic) imitation.

When does harmless anonymous entertainment become culture? Can the two films mentioned be considered examples of karaoke culture or do they just exemplify celebrity culture that not only allows the stars to do everything – from pulling silly faces in musicals to writing silly books – but actually forces them to do so, in the hope of having a commercial impact? Let us not forget: karaoke is the entertainment of anonymous people, whereby the guise of anonymity enables them to fulfil their secret desires within existing codes (of technology, genre etc). People practising karaoke are anything but revolutionaries, innovators or people who will change the world. Nevertheless, they do seem to be changing it.

The article Second Life Affair Leads to Real Life Divorce (The Guardian of 13 November 2008) describes the case of a British couple, Amy Taylor and David Pollard, who met in an internet chatroom, fell in love and got married. Their avatars in the internet computer name Second Life were also lovers. One day Amy Taylor caught her husband watching his avatar making love to a prostitute. Amy was outraged and finished the virtual relationship but she and David remained married (in real life).  After a while Taylor decided to check on David’’s fidelity, took on the role of a female detective on Second Life and discovered that her avatar Skye and her husband David’’s avatar Barmy were happily married, but also that Barmy kept cheating on Skye. Amy filed for divorce in real life. David testified that he had only an online relationship, which did not even involve cybersex, and thus hadn’’t done anything he should feel guilty about.

Karaoke culture is based on the idea of exorcising the anonymous ego by means of a game of simulation. It is as if people were more interested in escaping from themselves than in trying to understand their own authentic I. I has become boring. It is more interesting to transform oneself into someone else than to rummage in one’’s own soul. The culture of narcissism has undergone a mutation, creating the culture of karaoke.

The nature of the market for exorcising our ego – regardless of whether we are running away from it or affirming it – is open. Everyone is welcome and all variations are acceptable. After spending ages vegetating underground, the ego has spilled out onto the surface and can no longer be stopped. Metaphorically speaking, Andy Warhol, the inventor of karaoke in art, died just in time because today he would have to watch in horror as anonymous cans of Campbell soup are coming closer, intent on devouring him. And that nice Daisuke Inoue is now involved in selling eco-friendly (and ego-friendly!) detergents and insecticides for cockroaches that like to creep into karaoke kits and chew at the wires. For, come to think of it, everything is held together by wires. Without healthy wires there is no healthy culture.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article appeared in Polish in the Gazeta Wyborcza on 08 February 2009.