Karaoke Idols: Popular Music and the Performance of Identity

Karaoke Idols: Popular Music and the Performance of Identity

by Kevin Brown


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783204441
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 11/15/2015
Pages: 180
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Kevin Brown is assistant professor of Digital Media and Performance Studies in the Department of Theatre at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

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Karaoke Idols

Popular Music and the Performance of Identity

By Kevin Brown

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78320-446-5


My Way

For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught.

– Paul Anka

The descriptions of karaoke performances in this book are accounts of real events that I observed during an ethnographic study of a karaoke bar near Denver, Colorado, in the United States. To ensure that privacy is respected, all of the names used in this book are completely fictionalized. However, all of the performances that I write about are entirely real. I have strived to capture as much detail as possible from my original experiences in order to give the reader a feeling for what it was like to be in my shoes, observing and participating in these performances. 'Capone's' is the fictional name of a real place, a fairly typical local bar. I picked this particular research site because of the diversity of the people who frequent it. Capone's is a place where the white-collar collides with the blue-collar, the straight mingle with the gay, and people of all colors drink their beer and whiskey side by side. It is a great place to observe many kinds of performances by many kinds of people. Over the course of several years, from 2007 to 2009, I visited Capone's on a regular basis, an average of once a week. On an average night, I would sing three or more songs. Usually, there were between five to ten other singers in the rotation. So, over the course of my study, I performed hundreds of times, and I watched thousands of karaoke performances. The descriptions of karaoke performances in this book, and the theoretical discussions that surround them, were born out of these experiences.

The Colorado suburb where I undertook this study, while perhaps not as diverse as the average community in America, is a relatively multicultural city compared to other municipalities in the same county. The amount of diversity among the patrons who come to inhabit Capone's on karaoke night seems to reflect these numbers. In fact, because of the wide variety of the types of people there, it is impossible to use a stereotypical label to describe the bar (such as 'Sports Bar,' 'Blue-Collar Bar,' or 'Yuppie Bar'). On any given night, it can be any one of these, or all of these, depending on the season of the year, the day of the week, and the time of day. During the daylight hours, it is a family restaurant where one can order everything from typical American cuisine, such as steak, hamburgers, hot dogs, and cheese fries, to the slightly eclectic, including burritos, gyros, and fish and chips. After dinner time, the family clientele slowly drain out the door, and a more typical bar crowd begins to arrive, changing over from the after-work happy-hour crowd to the serious full-time drinkers who inhabit their bar stools until last call. This diversity is what makes this location such a rich site to observe karaoke. The clientele is very diverse in terms of economic class, age, gender, and ethnicity. At various karaoke nights, I have met a thirty-something single male attorney, an octogenarian Italian immigrant who fought in World War II, a twenty-something female steel worker/single mother of three, as well as a migrant farm worker whom I spoke to at length in Spanish. In the end, I chose Capone's as a site for my research because it is a great place to observe many kinds of performances by many kinds of people.

Setting the Stage

The atmosphere at Capone's is fairly low-key. Christmas lights adorn almost every ceiling beam and arched doorway throughout the bar. These lights bathe the karaoke performers in a warm glow of soft reds, greens, yellows, and blues. The walls of the bar are covered in green wallpaper with gold and lavender fringes. Framed newspaper clippings about bank robberies and black-and-white photographs of depression-era Chicago line the walls of the bar, around the two sections that contain the pool tables and along the hallways that lead to the bathrooms. These photographs and news items vaguely allude to what could be considered the theme of the bar/restaurant: an exploration of the 'outlaw' archetype.

Apart from these framed items, the primary decoration of the bar is commercial advertising of various sorts. This includes neon signs hawking various brands of alcohol including beer, vodka, rum, and whisky, as well as advertisements for cigarettes and energy drinks. This pastiche of capitalism contributes to setting a very curious kind of scene in which the spectacle of commercialism is simultaneously at the forefront but also invisible because of its ubiquity, the sea of advertisements comprising a totalized hegemony to the casual observer. The onslaught is so overwhelming that the various commercials blend together in their entirety, and it becomes a kind of background of gray noise. This deluge of colorful advertising is one of the things that unmistakably marks Capone's as a site of commerce. It is a site of commerce in more than one way. Every night there is an exchange of goods in the form of hard-earned cash and credit cards swiped in return for food, drinks, and fun. But there is also an exchange of goods on another level, more along the lines of what might be described as 'meat market' commerce, that is, the possibility in the air of the exchange of a more romantic nature as well. It is among the performance of these exchanges that various categories of identity are constructed.

At Capone's, there are two nights of the week dedicated to karaoke, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Each night has a different Karaoke Jockey. Wednesday's KJ, Ron, is an older man in his sixties. Ron is 'old school,' and runs his karaoke show with a collection of hundreds of CD+Gs (compact discs with graphics), that he houses in binders that he sets up each night on a table along the wall behind his soundboard. The Saturday KJ is Tom, a middle-aged man in his early fifties. Tom's setup is all digital, consisting of thousands of songs that he keeps on his laptop, sometimes prone to computer errors.

I prefer to sing on Wednesdays, because it is less crowded and I get to sing more often. This is the same reason why most of the regulars prefer to sing on Wednesdays. In addition, Wednesday's audience is usually more attentive to the singing. Many times, and more often on Saturday nights, I get the feeling that as I perform I might as well be a recorded voice on the juke box in the corner of the room. Some of my favorite karaoke memories, nonetheless, are made on Saturday nights when I overcome all of the technical difficulties and apathy, and have a bar full of people singing along with me.

Saturday nights and Wednesday nights each have their own type of crowd. Wednesday nights are more subdued, and thus attract more of the 'regulars.' Saturday nights attract more of what the regulars call 'tourists,' the people who show up at Capone's on any one given night and then are never seen again. Many of the tourists are there for parties of various kinds, the most popular being birthday parties, followed closely behind by wedding celebrations (bachelor and bachelorette parties and post-reception parties), and anniversary parties. The tension between the regulars and the tourists is often palpable, mostly because the regulars take karaoke seriously and the tourists, more often, do not.

Steppin' Out

When I first began to go out to observe karaoke performances, I was terrified of singing. Before I began my study, I had only sung karaoke once, during the late 1980s. My girlfriend at the time and I attended a stand-up comedy show in Colorado Springs, the city where I grew up. After the show, as we walked into the lobby, we saw that they had a small stage set up for karaoke. My girlfriend and I had met in high school when she was performing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and I was a techie on the same show. I suggested that she should sing, since I knew she was a very good singer. She replied, 'Only if you sing first.' So, I took her up on her dare, and picked out the song 'Welcome to the Jungle' by Guns N' Roses. At this point in my life, the only time I had sung in public before was in church. The song proved to be way out of my singing range. Since most of the lyrics are screamed, I did well enough to get a positive reaction from the audience. After I was done, I said 'Now it's your turn.' Although my girlfriend attempted to back out of the deal we had made, I eventually convinced her to sing. When she finally got on stage, she did an incredible version of 'Over the Rainbow.' The audience enjoyed her performance so much that they made her do an encore.

Between that date in the summer of 1988 and the summer of 2007, I did not sing any karaoke. Even during the first phase of my study, when I was scouting possible sites for my study, I would sit quietly in the audience, but I would not sing. I have found that this is a very common phenomenon. I have encountered many people who go to karaoke every week, but never sing. They all have their own litany of excuses, the most popular being, 'Trust me, you don't want to hear me sing.' Perhaps I, like many people in our society, have been conditioned to think that performance is not something that the untrained 'masses' should attempt. We are convinced that we should let the 'artists' create art. Or, perhaps it was my own insecurity about my voice. I have been an actor for many years, so I am very accustomed to stage fright, but for some reason, it took me quite a while to overcome my fear of singing on stage.

In the book Karaoke Nights: An Ethnographic Rhapsody (2001), communications scholar Robert Drew explains the difficulties associated with singing karaoke. He quotes one of the singers that he encountered in his study: 'It's the rawest form of performing you can do' (Drew 2001: 36). Besides the many possibilities of technical difficulties that can occur during a performance, there is also the problem that, very often, the arrangement of the karaoke version of the song is quite different from the original recording. To make matters worse, different versions of the same song might be recorded in different keys. Thus, one might think that a song is within his or her vocal range, but then encounter a karaoke version of the song that has been recorded in a key higher or lower than the original version. Drew points out that professional singers are in complete control of the conditions of their performances: 'Famous singers (and famous people who feel inclined to sing) can have their background music tailored to their competencies and their characters. A nicely recorded backdrop can flatter even the narrowest voice, as is proven, for instance, by Ringo Starr's many hits. As Steve Jones writes "The ability to record sound is power over sound"' (Jones qtd. in Drew 2001: 36). The conditions of the karaoke performance, on the other hand, are far beyond the control of the singer. This is what makes it so intimidating. I have seen trained singers who have excellent voices go down in flames, or just refuse to sing because of the difficulty of the performance conditions.

When I finally got up the nerve to sing, I found the experience exhilarating but also humbling. During the course of my study, I 'bombed' many times. When I first started, I could not carry a tune in a bucket. I often found that I thought that I knew a song much better than I actually did. Figuring out exactly how the mechanics of the karaoke machine worked was also a daunting task. The words of the lyrics to the song are displayed on the screen, but the exact timing and harmony are not. Sometimes unexpected and distracting things happen on the video track, such as images that seem arbitrarily paired with the song, or places where the words to the song have obviously been 'lost in translation.' But I did not let my failures get me down. Every time I sang, I got better. By the time I was finishing up my study in the spring of 2009, I can honestly say that I had become quite a good singer, and I had left my previous stage fright behind.

Karaoke Ethnography

To my knowledge, there has never been an ethnography on the subject of karaoke quite like this one. There have been ethnographies written dedicated to the topic of karaoke, but none of them have been conducted with a focus on performance, and none of them have been focused on one particular site over an interval of two years. Studies on karaoke have been conducted by researchers from various fields, including communication studies (Lum 1996, Drew 2001), anthropology (Kelly 1997), and sociology (De Nora 2000). This is the first in-depth ethnographic study of karaoke to be undertaken in over a decade.

The first ethnography on the subject of karaoke to be published was Casey Man Kong Lum's In Search of a Voice: Karaoke and the Construction of Identity in Chinese America (1996). In this book, Lum writes about karaoke from a communication studies perspective. His ethnography includes three sections, focused on a Cantonese Opera festival in New York's Chinatown, a karaoke party in an affluent Taiwanese suburb in New Jersey, and a community of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants singing karaoke at a restaurant in Flushing, New York.

The second ethnography to be published on the subject of karaoke, and one as groundbreaking as Lum's, is Robert Drew's Karaoke Nights: An Ethnographic Rhapsody (2001). Drew studied numerous karaoke bars in Philadelphia, New York, and Florida. Over the course of six years, Drew went to karaoke bars 'on about 140 occasions at 30 different bars' (Drew 2001: 26). Thus, although Drew and I have probably gone to a similar number of karaoke nights, Drew did this in a variety of locations. Although I scouted a score of karaoke bars during the first phase of my project, my two years 'in the field' were spent at one location, making my study the most in-depth ethnography of a single karaoke performance venue undertaken thus far.

One of the very first scholarly articles about karaoke was published in 1994, titled 'Karaoke: Subjectivity, Play and Interactive Media,' by Johan Fornäs, a musicologist. In this article, Fornäs describes several of his own encounters with karaoke in Sweden. Fornäs begins his article with what seems to be a variation of the same thesis with which I started. He conjectures, 'It would be interesting to study karaoke producers' choice of songs, as well as the selections purchased by different groups of consumers (private persons, clubs, bars, restaurants, etc.) and the selections made by different groups of users/performers (by gender, age, socio-economic classes, ethnic groups, etc.)' (Fornäs 1994: 91).

Fornäs suggests that ethnography would be a good way to study karaoke. He predicts, 'Here we need more detailed ethnographic user studies, which should also analyze the socio-demographic consumption of various user and consumer groups in terms of sex, age, ethnicity, locality, and class' (Fornäs 1994: 98). Fornäs also suggests that karaoke is the perfect medium in which to study the performance of subjectivity. He explains, 'By trying on Madonna's or Michael Jackson's provocative style of expression, Sinatra's maturity or Sid Vicious' cynical brutality, one might discover new potentials in oneself, in the modes of expression and in friends' response' (Fornäs 1994: 96). Thus, it seems that I am not the only one who has been drawn to the study of karaoke as a way to explore how people perform identities.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

At the beginning of my study, one of the biggest shocks to my system was the realization of how late at night karaoke takes place. Although many karaoke nights begin at maybe 8:00 p.m., most of the people who sing do not arrive until about 9:00 p.m. on the weekends and about 10:00 p.m. or later on weeknights. As an aging scholar, these late nights were immediately a challenge to my constitution. In fact, it made me painfully aware of how old I am (although I am only approaching middle age), at least in comparison to the majority of the people out that late at night, most of who are in their mid-twenties. Soon, I found myself taking naps on the days that I sang karaoke, and arranging to sleep in on the days after. On a typical outing, I would take a nap from about 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., wake up, eat dinner, take a shower, and then get ready to go out.

Sometimes, I would download MP3s from the Internet to listen to the songs that I wanted to sing that night. About six months into my study, I brought home a karaoke machine, very affordable at $30, a portable Memorex machine. It had no video function on the machine itself, so I plugged it into my television. It had a small speaker for the audio, and RCA jacks that allowed me to connect it to my home stereo system for a more 'Hi Fi' experience. Although there are much more fancy and elaborate (and more expensive) karaoke systems out there, the Memorex has provided me with all that I need to practice singing at home (it even has a reverb function). I ordered a handful of karaoke CDs from Amazon, including discs dedicated to The Cars, Queen, one called 'Standards,' and one was a collection titled 'Super Party Songs.' I also bought some rock CDs, including 'Classic Rock,' and 'Guitar Legends.' Because my study is about the performance of karaoke in relation to identity, I also bought a hip hop CD, and a CD featuring songs by Jennifer Lopez and Selena. Sometimes, I would practice before I went out. Because my home karaoke collection is very limited, usually the practicing was to warm up my voice, not to practice a specific song that I was going to sing that night.


Excerpted from Karaoke Idols by Kevin Brown. Copyright © 2015 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



About the Author


1. My Way

2. Turning Japanese

3. Boys Don't Cry

4. Paint It Black

5. Friends in Low Places

6. Sweet Caroline


Afterword: Karaoke as Performance Reactivation
Philip Auslander



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