Monday, January 14, 2008

I've Always Wondered ...

Because I am incapable of enjoying any activity without indulging in the overanalysis of same, I have been researching academic criticism on karaoke as a social and cultural phenomenon. My latest discovery is a brief essay by one Casey Man Kong Lum entitled: "The Karaoke Dilemma: on the interaction between collectivism and individualism in the karaoke space."

The piece is interesting, though full of sentences like the following, found on page 173: "The dual role that people are expected to play in the karaoke space helps to facilitate an obligatory bonding among the participants." (Because we academics have to make sure to use long dry words like 'obligatory' when talking about fun things, so people can tell we are taking those fun things very very seriously.) The author's thesis is fairly plain and well-argued: Asian culture, with its emphasis on the group (be it family, company, or broader society) is more inclined to favor karaoke than what he calls Anglo-American culture with its emphasis on self-distinction and individuality.

Karaoke, of course, is both an individual and a collective activity; singers are individuals onstage, but group members when they melt back into the amorphous mass known as the audience (which can be very amorphous indeed). CMKL argues that the individualized aspects of the pastime provide a literal and metaphorical voice for people in group-centered cultures, giving them a sense of freedom and release. For Anglo-Americans, on the other hand, karaoke invades the peculiarly American notion of having privacy in a public space: in this case, a bar, where getting up to sing might in some sense 'expose'* the performer to the critical gaze of the audience. In shopping malls and restaurants and other public places, we try not to make eye contact or talk to strangers; we preserve the illusion of being alone even in the midst of a crowd. Maybe this is also why Christmas shopping is so evil to us -- we can't possibly preserve the illusion of solitude in such cramped conditions. However, the logic behind these twin points -- the crux of the argument, really -- seems suspect. It almost suggests that collectivist cultures long to escape that collectivism, while individualist cultures cling to their individuality. Seems a little bit like a value judgment on collectivism vs. individualism.

My favorite point is when the author talks about the peculiarly American karaoke habit of getting an entire group up onstage to sing. CMKL puts describes this tactic as: "an attempt to use the group on stage to shield the individual performers from the public scrutiny of the audience members, some of whom are likely to be strangers to the performers" (175). This is, in my experience, exactly right, and justifies both the custom of the Everybody Song (getting anyone at all up for a song of the KJ's mischievous choice), and my absolute hatred for anyone who gets up to sing with more than three people.

This essay therefore also justifies my even more vitriolic hatred toward those groups who flood to the edge of the stage to watch and photograph their friends while they perform. It turns the karaoke bar into their own private fun center and excludes everyone else. Makes us feel unloved. Narcissistic bastards.

*I initially typed 'explose,' which I really think oughta be a word. Explose: to expose someone in a catastrophic, damaging fashion.

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