The Pleasures of Karaoke

The second thing that struck me with the force of the unexpected was my wife, that is, her bravura showmanship. An old-school university professor adhering to the standards of exemplary scholarship and strict classroom practice, and a Conservatory-trained pianist, Janice became a fixture at the mic, belting out ABBA and Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw and the Carpenters and The Eagles and Meatloaf with the best of them. When a student of hers showed up one evening and saw his impeccably attired professor in jeans and t-shirt, entertaining an audience made up not of resentful students but sympathetic locals, he was dumbfounded, as was I at first. The rollicks of karaoke and the rigors of higher accomplishment were not, apparently, in conflict. Goldman notwithstanding, commitment to an austere profession and an apprenticeship in classical music do not preclude appreciation for popular culture.

For myself, though I enjoy the evenings, I admit that singing karaoke is not my thing. I’m not at home with other people’s songs. I did warble Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” two or three times and twice cavorted through the Soggy Bottom Boys’ “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” with a couple of beer-toting celebrants, but that was the sum of my actual participation. It was the general ambience of friendliness and good fun and the fact that karaoke enabled me to see my neighbors—and my wife—in a new light that intrigued and delighted me. Karaoke makes for revelations.

In effect, karaoke, as I’ve come to know it, is an expression of love for popular music, of pure enjoyment in the act of singing with the original musical accompaniment songs that are part of one’s personal repertoire of favorites and of performing them before an audience of the likeminded. There is a kind of impersonation at play, and, as I’ve mentioned, of seeing oneself and others in a surprising way. If the essence of karaoke is rendering another’s song as one’s own, it follows that it is a legitimate musical genre, practiced by amateurs and professionals alike. Sometimes changes are made to the lyrics, as when one of our karaoke singers introduces the pub owner’s name in Toby Keith’s “I Love this Bar,” which then becomes “I love Dale’s bar,” or, on another level, the flamboyant Menachem Herman alters Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to “Sweet Home Jersualem.” This too is a sort of karaoke.

It should be noted that karaoke also contains a subversive element. Many of the “cowboy” songs beloved by performers express old-fashioned love of country and traditional gender roles, thus allowing people to be politically incorrect in a welcoming environment. In a world coming apart at the seams, karaoke is like a festival of remembrance and an innocent pastime that has not yet been socially frowned upon or ideologically prohibited. As such, it is not something to be disparaged but rather commended as another aspect of musical culture and, as noted, of patriotic sentiment. It is no accident that karaoke does not do rap, which is not music but boring, self-indulgent, infantile babbling that belongs with its endemic vulgarity and the violence it encourages in the gutter. Karaoke is rap’s antithesis.

Indeed, karaoke is not so different from singing in a chorus or a choir, a communal endeavor that satisfies one of the most elemental and enduring of human impulses—to lift up one’s voice and to make a joyful noise, however raucous.

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