I find it a little hard to explain why I love karaoke, but I do. More, by far, of my favorite memories from nights out listening to music come from karaoke than from any other kind of performance. The girl who wanted to be a country star out practicing at Kirin, the guy with the GIANT Viet Namese accent singing the 8-minute version of “I’m Sailing Away,” the KJ with the Turgenyev-esque tale of woe at Ridgeway’s, and most recently, the woman taking a header off the stage while singing “I Wanna Be Sedated” at Cowboy Monkey–and still finishing the song.
Recently I was at a party, trying to put into words what it is that I find compelling about it, and was thrown back to a fairly basic statement: it makes me love people. Makes me love the singers and the people listening, and by extension, humanity writ large. Karaoke is like church to me, I suppose. But that’s not much of an answer–that is, it doesn’t really explain why I feel that way. I have thought more on it, and I’ve come to this: I love karaoke, at least as it is practiced in the U.S., because it presents life’s rich pageant, the Ridiculous and the Sublime. It is a place for laughing at ourselves, and being moved by the intensity of feeling we can bring to experiences; a place for suprisingly beautiful renditions of songs, and for truly awful ones. It makes the mass-marketed commodity into a thing we take hold of and force to serve our needs, personal and communal. It can also be tragic, of course, but that, too, is moving, if only because it points us to our own tragedies, big and small.
Some friends of mine have a “Live Karaoke Band,” which I’m fairly certain is the most interesting thing to do in Champaign-Urbana, where I live, and which is in some ways even more appealing than regular karaoke. I think watching the guys in the band (mid-30s, moderately successful local rock musicians) work with the singers (some good, but mostly what you’d expect), cueing them, directing them to the right pitch, helping them have the experience of interacting in a musical context, is pretty awesome. It seems like an obvious concept, but I haven’t seen it elsewhere–makes me wonder how common it is.
One final thought: I don’t particularly like the Japanese-style karaoke. Singing in a private room with a small group of one’s friends sounds like it would make for a better time–no waiting to sing, no suffering through strangers’ mangled renditions–but for me it loses everything I go to karaoke for.
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