Sing to Me

Karaoke is self-compromise as spectacle

It is strange to think of karaoke as an invention. The practice predates its facilitating devices, and the concept transcends its practice: Karaoke is the hobby of being a star; it is an adjuvant for the truest you an audience could handle.

Karaoke does have a parent. In the late 1960s, Daisuke Inoue was working as a club keyboardist, accompanying drinkers who wanted to belt out a song. “Out of the 108 club musicians in Kobe, I was the worst,” he told Time. One client, the head of a steel company, asked Inoue to join him at a hot springs resort where he’d hoped to entertain business associates. Inoue declined, but instead recorded a backing tape tailored to the client’s erratic singing style. It was a success. Intuiting a demand, Inoue built a jukebox-like device fitted with a car stereo and a microphone, and leased an initial batch to bars across the city in 1971. “I’m not an inventor,” he said in an interview. “I simply put things that already exist together, which is completely different.” He never patented the device (in 1983, a Filipino inventor named Roberto del Rosario acquired the patent for his own sing-along system) though years later he patented a solution to ward cockroaches and rats away from the wiring.

In 1999, Time named Inoue one of the “most influential Asians” of the last century; in 2004, he received the Ig Nobel prize, a semiserious Nobel-parody honor by true laureates at Harvard University. At the ceremony, Inoue ended his acceptance speech with a few bars of the Coke jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and four laureates serenaded him with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in the style of Andy Williams. “I was nominated [as] the inventor of karaoke, which teaches people to bear the awful singing of ordinary citizens, and enjoy it anyway,” Inoue wrote in an essay. “That is ‘genuine peace,’ they told me.”

Karaoke is a hobby, but it’s also like tipping a pitcher into a glass: What might spill into my life pours out in lines written by someone else. Afterward, people applaud

“While karaoke might have originated in Japan, it has certainly become global,” write Xun Zhou and Francesca Tarocco in Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon. “Each country has appropriated karaoke into its own existing culture.” My focus is limited to just a slice of North America, where karaoke has gone from a waggish punchline — an item on the list of Things We All Hate, according to late-night hosts and birthday cards — to an “ironic” pastime, to just a thing people like to do, in any number of forms. You can rent a box, or perform for a crowded bar; you can do hip-hop karaoke, metal karaoke, porno karaoke, or, in Portland, “puppet karaoke.” For the ethnography Karaoke Idols: Popular Music and the Performance of Identity, Dr. Kevin Brown spent two years in the late aughts frequenting a karaoke bar near Denver called Capone’s: “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.” In university, a friend of mine took a volunteer slot hosting karaoke for inpatients at a mental health facility downtown. Years later I visited a friend at the same center on what happened to be karaoke night; we sang “It’s My Party.”

When I was growing up in Toronto, karaoke was reviled for reasons that now seem crass: There is nothing more nobodyish than pretending you’re somebody. Canada is an emphatically modest country, and the ’90s were a less extroverted age: Public attitudes were more condemnatory of those who showed themselves without seeming to have earned the right. The ’90s were less empathetic, too, and karaoke lays bare the need to be seen, and accepted; such needs are universal, and repulsive. We live now, you could say, in a karaoke age, in which you’re encouraged to show yourself, through a range of creative presets. Participating online implies that you’re worthy of being perceived, that some spark of you deserves to exist in public. Instagram is as public as a painting.

Karaoke is a social medium, a vector for a unit of your sensibility, just as mediated as any other, although it demands different materials. Twitter calls for wit, Instagram for aesthetic, but karaoke is supposed to present your nudest self.

I went to a high school that trains professional singers, and though I was never particularly talented, any close friend, roommate, or neighbor of mine would tell you that I love to sing, and to be heard singing. My favorite place in New York to sing is Montero Bar and Grill, a longshoreman’s bar on Atlantic Avenue near Pier 6. The host, Amethyst Valentino, is in her early 50s and looks like a blonde Catherine Keener: same cat’s eyes and warm, slightly carnivorous smile. “I used to want to be a singer as a kid,” she told me, “but I was a young mother at 16. So I finished high school and took some college courses, and ended up working for a heat sink company,” first driving a forklift, then moving on to sales and customer service. When she lost her job after 13 years, she relocated from Texas to New York for a modeling job, and started taking on acting gigs; she now makes and sells jewelry. “I was doing a lot of corporate training videos, things that nobody really sees,” she says. “I’d be a boss in a [how-not-to] about sexual harassment. A lot of people come to New York to be an actress or whatever, but I got kinda wrapped up in the karaoke thing. I was a karaoke junkie.”

Valentino is good at making people sound good. She “tweaks the buttons” on her mixer, offers advice when it seems welcome, and angles the video screen so that the only person who sees it clearly is the one with the mic — if someone in the audience sings too loudly, she’ll wave at them to cut it out. She also employs a subtle rating system: If you perform decently, she’ll tell you “good job”; if you perform well, she’ll tell you “great job”; and if you really nail it, she’ll post a video of your performance on Facebook, with your explicit permission. This creates the effect of a favorite elementary school teacher: You want to impress her, but you never feel like you failed to.

The last time I went to Montero’s I entered just as a tall man with the look of an easygoing accountant released the last syllable of the bridge from “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Later I noticed him enjoying a small bag of Doritos from the bar, and felt the wash of a crush. A man in sunglasses with a cane sang a faithful rendition of “Lean on Me,” after which Valentino helped lead him through the crowd out to the street. “He’s a sweet guy, with a big heart,” she told me. “And he stands by the sound system and he always lets me know if he’s gonna be late.” About a third of her patrons take karaoke seriously, she says, like a sport; about half are there for fun. The rest “are more like voyeurs,” and she makes a point of encouraging them to perform. “I believe everyone deserves the right to be a star, whether you can sing or not.”

The videos I record of myself doing karaoke are diaristic, and work best for me when they’re difficult, at first, to watch

The only bad performance is a half-assed one; there’s nothing worse than a singer who interrupts himself with laughter. Amateur standup offers the same spectacle of a person just being, but performance succeeds or fails mostly empathically. Even a good speech is painful to watch if the speaker seems uncomfortable. Bombing comedians are generally uncomfortable; even if they seem composed, you can perceive the gap between their objective and the way the joke lands. The objective of karaoke is just to sing a song. Singing a song is a joyful thing; so is the experience of being cheered on by a room full of people primed to enjoy your singing. “You know, karaoke’s kind of like sales,” Valentino says. “You gotta be friendly to be able to do it, for the most part. And you have to like people.”

Valentino cleaned off the microphone with a wet wipe, and I sang “I Feel the Earth Move,” which meets my two criteria for a karaoke standby: It’s in my range, and I associate it with genuine emotions. Karaoke is a hobby for me the way golf is a hobby for my dad — there’s gratification in hitting the note — but it’s also like tipping a pitcher into a glass: Feelings that might spill into my life pour out in lines written by someone else. Afterward, people applaud.

Globally, karaoke is customizable: You can sing for an audience, or you can rent a box with your friends; you can rent a karaoke stall like a photo booth, or buy a Magic Sing to perform with at home among family. In 2011, a karaoke chain called 1Kara opened its first location in Tokyo. It offers singing pods for one, like a driving range or a batting cage, complete with mixers and condenser mics. “There is nothing to hold you back now!” the company’s website reads. “You can truly lose yourself to the music.”

I do karaoke alone, in my room, and record myself in Photobooth, partly for vocal practice, but mostly as a way of performing for myself as myself. The videos are diaristic, in that I hope no one will ever see them, and I don’t dress up, or try any “moves,” nor do I limit any movements. I might sometimes cover my face with my hair, but the videos work best for me when they’re difficult, at first, to watch. Soon enough, as happens when observing people you have to get along with, I begin mentally correcting for my flat notes and slurred melismas, and my grimace just looks like a face. My flaws start to make sense within a whole that I could love.

Solo karaoke is a way of cutting out the middleman. It’s an exercise in seeing myself as I am, and enjoying what I see; in appreciating myself as I’d like to be appreciated by an audience, and liking myself as I’d liked to be liked by someone else. Of course, you have very little control over the way people see you, or the way they like you, if they do. The more effectively you anticipate and correct for their biases, the less interesting you risk becoming. One of my favorite karaoke performers is a woman with sunglasses and tangerine hair who sings weekly at the bar up the street from my old apartment. She tilts her head stiffly and sings every note flat. I don’t know what she wants to be liked for, and I imagine she wouldn’t concern herself with the reasons I like her, which is part of the reason I do. Good karaoke performers are often likable for what they’ve forgotten they’re not: famous, or even all that good.

Hobbies are a way to feel good about yourself in spite of your inadequacies. For the moment you rounded third, it didn’t matter that your breath smells chronically of wood rot, or that you never see your kids. Karaoke, however, makes a showcase of your inadequacies. Up there it’s just you and a backing track. No lighting scheme is going to make you look much better than you look. No mix is going to make you sound much better than you sound. A bad singer will try to forget the fact, but a better performer will work with it. Karaoke is a way of performing your shortcomings, which implies the hope of transfiguring them — flaws become eccentricities, which add up to character.

Karaoke is a way to be in public as you might be in private. Much of the stress of being among others is of remaining kind and patient when they remind you of yourself

For most of us, singing is a private activity. It involves a volume of expression that is totally inappropriate in most areas of life, as well as bodily configurations reserved mostly for bedrooms and bathrooms. Karaoke is a way to be in public as you might be in private. It’s an easy way to be vulnerable, and to be comfortable with other people’s vulnerabilities, which is just as fulfilling: So much of the stress of being among others is of remaining kind and patient when they remind you of yourself. Karaoke is the spectacle of a compromised state. There are many compromised states. In one you might be squinting and yowling a song you can’t sing; in others you might be screaming at a friend, or sucker-punching a stranger. Just as a sad song offers melancholy in place of misery, karaoke makes hubris look cute.

If karaoke is a safe form of intimacy, solo karaoke is a safe form of self-reckoning. I watch my face contorting like a strange muscle, I hear the notes I didn’t hit, the vibrato I couldn’t hold, and if I can love myself in the raw I can confirm that I am lovable — I swap out the ugly for the awkward. There are versions of me, and of you, that are lovable in their imperfections. And there are versions of us that are really unlovable, and must be continually excreted in private for as long as we live. Real faults are harder to air in public. They invite scorn for the same reason that even a good speaker is a bad speaker if they seem genuinely uncomfortable: We empathize in a way we’d rather not.

I used to avoid posting good pictures of myself online because I thought they gave a false impression. But over the years I’ve interacted with more people online than off, and I’ve realized that the version of me people think they’re interacting with on the internet is at least as genuine as the version a stranger might perceive in line at the grocery store. Karaoke reveals a particular version of self. It might be closer to the quick, if the quick is the person you are while crying, or peeing, or curling up with flu. But those selves are no more you than the person you are while teaching a class of sixth graders, or interviewing for a job, or testifying before a senate committee. You are the sum of the impressions you make.

The ’90s, as I knew them, were a colder time. When most people spoke, only their friends could hear them. Most people listened to only their friends. Karaoke was a way to be more yourself in public, but being yourself in public was less okay. What I love about socializing now is the sense of people refracted, friends in the atmosphere: With so many ways to exhibit oneself, and so many selves now available, I know my friends in more dimensions than I ever thought possible. It’s easier to be close without the blighted parts of intimacy, to be together in some pure, psychic space beyond the curdling human allotment. Of course this can have the reverse effect, of intolerable intimacy: The boundary between yourself and others can become too porous, and then rot seeps through. A friend told me recently that while they could no longer be close to me, they enjoyed reading my social.

Every communicative medium has its drawbacks. Facebook can establish the community of your people — everyone you’ve ever met and want to stay in touch with — but it can produce a miasma of your past, and pin you to the person you used to be. Twitter is a great way to correct yourself, but a terrible place to be mistaken. Text messaging is a means of coexisting in solitude, but it can close a necessary distance. Living in public hasn’t eliminated the private self, but it has stratified levels of privacy, made more of the private exploitable. Karaoke presents as much naked you as most strangers could possibly enjoy; but it’s still mostly an add-on, something you mustn’t confuse with the you that requires permanent renovation. Whoever you are, you are worthy of attention and approval. May we remember what to keep to ourselves.

Alexandra Molotkow is a senior editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt and an editor at the Hairpin. She has written for the Believer, the New York Times Magazine, the Cut and the New Republic.