Halloween seems like a good day to discuss a book I just finished reading: Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life by Brian Raftery. I picked this book up because I was a fan of karaoke long before it was cool, back when it was distinctly not-cool, and people couldn’t understand the appeal of a bunch of amateurs gathering around to sing popular songs to each other. And so was Raftery, so this memoir of a karaoke addict was really appealing to me, because he saw what I saw from a similar perspective—what was once your dorky hobby back in the 90s (I started singing karaoke in high school with my aunt who took me to karaoke bars with her) has now become a mainstream form of entertainment, and when you say, get a group together to sing karaoke to celebrate your birthday, you’re not going to have many people whining that they’re scared or this is dorky. Most likely, you’ll have the virgins being anxious but willing, and everyone else will be picking their songs.
Raftery decides the switch is due to three factors: the emergence of late 90s/early 00s super-singable pop songs by Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys that are easy enough to sing that anyone feels comfortable trying, the popularity of “American Idol”, and the normalizing karaoke scene in “Lost In Translation”, a scene that really captures how karaoke works a lot better if people involved take their performances seriously, instead of doing a performance whose whole point is how you’re above all this. I think he’s on to something, but he doesn’t go far enough, though part of the reason is the culture changed even more since he was writing this book, which came out in 2008. I think it’s because Americans are increasingly putting a premium on fantasy and performance as valuable things, when in the past, these things were considered children’s fare that proper adults grow out of. (Unless they’re professionals, like actors or musicians.) And even though Raftery and I agree that “ironic” karaoke performances—where the person mocks the process of karaoke while performing—are stupid, I will say the ironic bent of American culture since really the late 60s on has a lot to do with this. It’s about playfulness, at its core, and once you start allowing and even requiring adults to be playful, then fantasy and performance are not far behind.
That’s why Halloween is the perfect day for this. The explosion in Halloween’s popularity tells you the whole story. I’d say in Austin, it’s easily the biggest day of the year, barring the time the Longhorns won the national championship. This is because you have a huge population of adults who have thrown the finger to the whole grow up and get boring process, but the trend is nationwide. The question is no longer “are you going to dress up?” but “who are you going to be?” Performing for others has almost completely lost its stigma, and thank god. The performer enjoys it, and the audience enjoys it (even if they’re waiting their turn). It’s a lot like sex—once the taboo comes off for you, you wonder what you were so worried about for so long.
(A complete aside: In fact, in the bad old days of karaoke, when people thought it was weird, those of us who liked it would often use sex metaphors to describe it. We took this to often silly lengths—I remember someone saying hilariously, “The big difference is that in sex, groups of women are a good thing.” This was a reference to the absolute worst of the “ironic” karaoke performances. A lot of women who wanted to do a stupid song so they could laugh about it, but were scared to go up alone, would jump on the stage in big groups and shout the lyrics. This used to happen at least once a night in the bad old days, and it was a good time to get a drink or go to the bathroom, since the performance had no redeeming value. I’m not against Teh Funny by any means in a karaoke performance. But the humor should be the content, you performing in a way that’s funny. You acting superior isn’t funny. If you hate it, why are you singing?)
Technology has a lot to do with this shift in public attitudes about performance and emulation. Social networking, blogging, etc. have created a huge incentive for people to put themselves on display, when previously they may have just kept their opinions mostly to themselves. Video games helped, too. They used to be considered something mainly for children, but now it’s completely acceptable for grown adults to sit down and pretend to be someone else doing crazy stuff for long periods of time. If you think about it, games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero (and now DJ Hero, which we just got yesterday, apologies for the lack of an evening post) were inevitable, and they landed at just the right time to explode in popularity. Even a few years earlier, I think more people would be wildly ashamed to strap on a plastic guitar and pretend to play it. Nowadays, though? People fight to get the chance. On the negative bent, I think the ubiquitous reality TV shows have also pushed along this further.
It’s the sort of thing that causes all sort s of reactionary hand-wringing, especially when faced with the incontrovertibly evil influence of reality TV shows, but I tend to think that on the whole, the trend is a positive thing. And that’s why I loved Raftery’s book. He’s relentlessly upbeat about karaoke, and he talks about how singing it gave him a place to express himself and helped him develop confidence. And I think that’s true for a lot of people, whatever their preferred form of performing is. Being able to put yourself out there and finding out that not only does the world not end, but often people applaud for you can be a huge boost to the self-confidence. And the reason is that these spaces give us a place to be acceptable even when we’re not the best at something. I’m sure a lot of people would think that I should feel a crushing shame because I’m not a good singer in any objective sense, but I don’t have to be at karaoke. The brilliance of it is that you find a way to do it that makes it fun for people while playing to your strengths. I can’t sing, but I can vamp comically and I usually pick great songs that people didn’t realize they want to hear until I play them. And I love music, and it’s infectious. Performing gives you a place to figure out what your strengths are, instead of focusing on the shame of having weaknesses.
Certainly, I remember back in ’99, we would hang out a lot at this karaoke bar on the north side of Austin that had a crowd that loved mostly country-western, though my group of friends didn’t sing much of that. We had one friend who would never sing. He was too scared, he said. But he promised he would do it one day. Then one night he comes in, downs a couple of drinks for courage, and decides to do it. He puts in the song “Peaches” by the Presidents of the United States, and he’s up on stage singing the first verse, and then when it hits the chorus, he throws all caution to the wind, and takes a flying leap off stage (which was like 4 inches from the ground), and skids across the dance floor on his knees. Then he proceeds to run around, singing the song and rock starring it up. He’s now in 3 bands, possibly more. (I can never keep track.) Once you get a taste for performance and self-expression, it’s hard to give it up.
So what do you think, Pandagonians? Are you for or against this shift in the public attitudes?