(originally published in publicsfear - number three - 1994)
Somewhere in Japantown:
We're in a seedy tourist bar, nearly empty but still smoky, and dark. The cafe tables have been pushed away from one corner to accommodate a microphone stand and an improvised podium with a television monitor. Off to the side sit a fancy state-of-the-art laserdisk player and a beat-up video projection screen.
On each of the remaining cafe tables are ratty plastic-coated binders. Each binder contains crude dog-eared xeroxed pages listing song titles; some in English, some in Japanese, all numbered.
There are just a few clientele left this evening: one table of Japanese salarymen, drunk but very well behaved, and a small group of art school students making more noise than the rest of the room combined. The bar is one of hundreds just like it in this city, one of thousands worldwide, each with essentially the same layout: the microphone, the laserdisk, the list of songs . . .
Just fill out a little slip of white paper with a song number, hand it in with a dollar bill, and wait to be summoned to the "stage" by the polite Japanese hostess tending the Laser Karaoke player. She carefully alternates English and Japanese song requests, and even sings herself whenever there are no requests at all,
A vapid music video appears on the various screens. A generic arrangement of synthesized strings plots out your favorite melody, in your favorite key. You start to sing. The video is subtitled with lyrics that light up line by line, word by word. So much cheap reverb is added to your voice that it seems to define a new style: no matter what kind of music anyone chooses, everything has a kind of dreamy flashback feeling, as though the original song is echoing down a long wet tunnel . . .
The salarymen take turns, always earnest, singing out of tune. They sing --their eyes cast downward, glued to the monitor--as if they are fulfilling some social obligation; not an entirely unpleasant one, but an obligation nonetheless To Western ears, their songs are unknown but somehow familiar, the way all pop songs that play by certain rules sound familiar.
The students perform shamelessly. They are equally off key, but they croon passionately, as if they are trying to drown out the reverb through sheer energy. They sing only for the rest of their group, ignoring everyone else in the room, as if this were some kind of private party . . .
The salarymen left even before their last request was granted. The hostess didn't notice, and she starts up the video. It's another typical Japanese karaoke: a montage of rain, roses, young love and pain. Nobody comes to the stage. Which brings up the question: if no one sings, is it still karaoke?
Finally, in a moment of spontaneous desperation, one of the students hops up on the stage. Unable to read a single character of the Japanese subtitles, he makes up lyrics of his own, inspired by the insipid images on the screen:
"It is raining, my love . . . raindrops are falling on the water. A cigarette . . . a cigarette, burning in an ashtray. Why? Why are you crying? You are looking . . . looking out a window. It is night. What . . . what is going on?"
He sings a tuneless melody, which becomes strangely harmonious, thanks to the reverb.
We have entered new territory.
The literal translation of Karaoke is "empty orchestra." (Why? Because all the real musicians have gone home?) It started in Japan, about ten years ago, then spread throughout the far east and Europe, and at last it's arrived in the U.S. (Some ideas are like overripe puffballs, just waiting for the right breeze before spewing their spores over everything in sight.) Karaoke bars are now in every town; they're fast becoming part of the American landscape. Karaoke is a special favorite of Hollywood.
Once on stage, you can perform a song any way you want; or rather, any way that you can. Two microphones allow duets (for the shy) or trios (for the drunk). Subtitled videos are displayed on a monitor mounted on a podium (for the performer) and on another, larger monitor or video projection screen (for the audience).
There are about a dozen variations on this basic scheme and more keep mutating into existence; I can barely keep track. There are home karaoke units (devised mainly to market CD and laserdisk players at a higher price). There are multi-unit "karaoke boxes", each with its own complete karaoke system, rented by the hour for private parties. And in malls, there are chroma key kiosks where you can be instantly composited into a video and then walk away with the tape -- a perfect gift from one narcissist to another.
And what's so interesting about karaoke anyway? Some people think that karaoke represents that which is most venal and despicable in present-day culture. Karaoke is nothing more than talentless nobodies wailing along tunelessly to tired mindless pop songs.
As cultural mutations go, karaoke does have a few things in its favor. For one thing, everybody gets to participate in pop culture, immediately and publicly. For another, there's no premium placed on polished or professional performances. You're not expected to be perfect; in fact, part of the pleasure resides in seeing a wild variety of raw and unrehearsed performances.
In karaoke, any distinctions between performer and audience breaks down; anyone who wants to can become (for a moment) the center of attention. It uses a common knowledge base of familiar songs -- anyone can do it. The party atmosphere (i.e. the beer) breaks down normal inhibitions about performing in front of friends and strangers. You dare yourself to get up on the stage. It's a thrill, sort of like a roller coaster ride without the motion sickness.
Live karaoke performances are juxtaposed with prerecorded video. The performances, no matter how spontaneous and unpredictable, are anchored by the video, which can be (but usually isn't) complex and calculated. The performer inhabits a prefabricated video landscape. The audience's focus shifts between video and performance.
It's no accident that karaoke exploded during this age of voluminous hype concerning interactivity and virtual reality. Karaoke isn't truly interactive (so far); but it is participatory, which is probably more important. Instead of holding up some pathetic notion of limited multiple-choice control of media (as Burger King says: have it your way), karaoke allows the participant to mold an existing media spectacle into something of their very own.
Almost. You're still stuck with those banal muzak videos.
A few years ago, I brought a class I was teaching on a few field trips to a karaoke bar in San Francisco. The class was a performance and video workshop, and I couldn't think of anything that combined the two mediums quite as effortlessly. (By the way karaoke is a fine way to break the ice in any group.) After a few of these field trips, it dawned on us that there was no inherent reason to stick to familiar songs. In fact, you didn't really need songs at all.
We started discussing karaoke as a kind of instant performance art medium, with the subtitled video becoming a score to be spontaneously interpreted by the performer. This led to a radical reformulation of traditional karaoke, called Neo-Karaoke, which was first presented in 1991 as "The Empty Orchestra Cafe" at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Class members spent several months making karaoke videos, independently and/or collectively . Anyone could bring in videotapes, audiotapes, texts, or all three. We tried out various combinations of the materials we had on hand each week. Videotapes were shot, rented, grabbed off the air -- anything. We whipped together some software for superimposing the titles on the videos. Everything was low budget, low fidelity, consumer grade stuff.
We'd throw a video together, then take turns performing the lyrics as we played the tape back, seeing what worked (and what didn't). Altogether, we churned out about 70 tapes over a few months. The event itself was presented in the school cafe, which we extensively remodeled into a nightclub-for-a-night. We had serious doubts about whether anyone would actually have the nerve to get up and perform something they'd never heard of. After all, our playlist was filled with titles like: Kangaroo Love Tart Blues; Little Orange Thing; Deadly Blue; 26 Words; Screaming Alice; Mean; Where Am I?; Viva Bush; Asshole Parts I & II; The Art of Spinoza; Speed King; Post-Traumatic; Seth Speaks; Electrode; Hot Damn One Eighty Five; Inflatable Heart; Banana Head; and The Death of Rasputin.
Among these were original compositions, revisions or rewrites of pop songs, poetry, dramatic scenes with dialogue and voiceovers, and various other unclassifiable hybrids.
Putting on an evening of Neo-Karaoke feels like presenting a concert where you rent all the equipment, invite an audience, and then forget to book a performer. To entice the cautious, we offered an incentive: a cup of hot sake as a reward for each performance.
It was hardly necessary. There's something about the combination of a smoky cocktail lounge and an empty spotlight that is all but irresistible. We had an inspired MC, Cliff Hengst, who set the standard for lack of inhibition, making it nearly impossible to worry about what anyone might think of your onstage behavior.
In Neo-Karaoke, the intensity of the audience's response serves to convince the performers that they are actually part of the video, locked into it, crucial. Neo-Karaoke facilitates an informal ad hoc collaboration between the video artist and the performer. Now, anyone can experience what it's like to be part of a media spectacle.
Neo-Karaoke takes all the pressure off the performer. You don't even have to remember your lines. In the age of the sound bite, short phrases are effortlessly, even unconsciously, ingested Every talking head on television is reading off a teleprompter or a cue card; in a sense, even newscast and talk shows are forms of karaoke.
The stage is a cool ethereal fog. A pale rainbow of light, slowly shifting colors, emanates from its center. A swarm of microcameras hovers on the periphery, scanning the wings for any motion that would indicate the presence of a potential performer. The bar, as usual, is half empty, a few scattered groups of locals and tourists sitting at widely spaced beatup fake Formica cafe tables. Peruse the songlists, which are displayed on flexible liquid crystal touchscreen blotters on each table,and then press the "Perform" icon, swipe plastic in the table's built-in card reader, and wait for your name to be announced by the booming synthetic voice of the high-end Auto-Cyberoke system.
As you approach the stage, the microcameras whir in excitement as they register your every feature. You pick up the microphone, nod, and the music begins. Holographic projectors transform the fog into an ever-changing three-dimensional video environment of waterfalls, canyons, cities, bedrooms. Other projectors track your head, adding highlights and shadows that resculpt your face into the Beloved Visage. It's subtle, but effective. A subliminal suggestion is planted in every viewer's mind: you are Elvis. (Or Tom Jones, Striesand, Sinatra . . . ) You open your mouth, and what emerges is a seamless blend of the King and you. You can sing the lyrics, or improvise your own; your words are being analyzed realtime, reconstituted using the now-famous Elvonic Transform. If you hit a wrong note, the King takes over . . . you can do no wrong.
© 1994 Perry Hoberman
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