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Karaoke Ice:

A Night Out

by Nancy Nowacek (NN), Marina Zurkow (MZ), Katie Salen (KS) and the CADRE City as Interface Group

Jason the Karaoke Jockey
Instantly, we knew we’d found the perfect bad squirrel.

Saturday, October 15. The day-long workshop dedicated to our project Karaoke Ice with the Cadre team transformed into an evening of cocktails and microphones. Under the guise of research, Mike Weisert assembled the CADRE Karaoke Ice Team and several other adventurers together at Bamboo 7 in Japantown, San Jose. As collaborators, it was our first research trip into the mysterious depths of karaoke.

Admittedly, our experience was limited, having only ever experienced karaoke as the uncomfortable centerpiece of many a birthday party. How could we have known that all it would take to overcome our own discomfort and scorn was a drunken karaoke jockey with the ritualistic charm of a rock star?

This all may sound a bit weird, coming from a group of artists building a project with karaoke at its core. But it is not as strange as it seems. Karaoke Ice originated at the confluence of two rituals: one, the ghetto Ice Cream Truck—an essential New York summertime street character trolling the streets, its broken soundtrack an infectious siren call gathering packs of kids and adults curbside—with another, the increasingly popular social ritual of karaoke. We believed the marriage a necessity: the Ice Cream Truck needs a better soundtrack, and karaoke singers need an audience. Performance meets broadcast. Ice cream meets microphone.

And Karaoke Ice meets Jason. Not the movie ghoul, but our Karaoke Jockey at the Bamboo 7.
Half-lit—too light to be a bar and too dark to be a community center—populated with leaning cocktail tables, Bamboo 7 was still warming up for its Saturday night primetime. Compact, unwashed, and clearly sloshed, he approached, trucker hat rakishly settled atop a mischievous face. Friendly, asking our names one by one, he introduced himself as “Jason, Your M.C.” and ran us through his ground rules for maintaining civility and order on the stage. Despite his mission to drink, sing, and drop his pants, he meant to seriously—if bawdily—uphold the law of his domain. His send-off words to every participant: “Don’t fuck it up.” Enthusiastically committed to karaoke, he appeared to us as an anti-Remedios, our Ice Cream truck driver and Karaoke Master, and even looked a little like a squirrel. 

Karaoke at the Blue Maxx
The experience was illuminating, engaging, and hilarious; we were hooked. A second stop at Blue Maxx, in Sunnyvale yielded the antithesis: a sincere, hard-boozin’ older crowd, a pair of David Lynch-like sisters and many Whitney Houston acolytes. Since that evening the three of us have made more outings here in New York, which were quite different from our experiences in San Jose. Our repertoire is growing.
Fueled by our outings in San Jose, New York, and most recently, in southeast asia, what follows is an email round robin about our findings thus far.


Click on images to display video

Marina, Nancy, and Katie sing "Ring of Fire"

Corrie Tse and Matt Haberman sing "The Joker"

Michael Weisert and Nick Biela sing "Brown Eyed Girl"

Jonathan Brilliant sings

Nancy Nowacek sings "Dead or Alive"

John Bruneau sings "The Sweetness"

Angel Adams sings "These Boots Were Made for Walking"

Bruce Gardner sings "Come on"

Katie and Marina sing "Because the Night"

John and Bruce sing "Blue Monday"

Angel and Elise Gee sing "Milkshake"
NN: Despite the many subtle shifts we’ve experienced in the various venues and styles of M.C., karaoke is a fairly simple and consistent system, one that most everyone, karaoke aficionado or not, knows. Song lists are distributed to patrons, songs are chosen. Patrons take the stage when their song title appears. Lyrics appear for the performer, whose singing is backed by a drum-synth track, and both tracks are piped through speakers aimed at the crowd, who offers its (usually rowdy) applause at the end. But this simple social mechanic has spread over geographies, cultures, and time, multiplied in contexts and meanings, and is experientially dense with nuance. We’ve been wondering, what is so compelling about karaoke? Marina, could you describe some of the speculations about context and meaning that have surfaced for you from our research?

The etymology of the word “karaoke” is interesting here, as a start point: The Japanese word stems from the words kara,, meaning “void” or "empty" and oke, which is short for ōkesutora, meaning "orchestra". (wikipedia)

Karaoke is an empty orchestra, waiting to be fronted.

I’ve been thinking about fronting, and voids. Slang usage of the term “to front” means to pretend, but I see that as only one of the roles that karaoke extends, through the act of participating. One key for me lies in the voice, and in the fact that karaoke is about using one’s voice expressively. Interpretively. Intuitively. Playfully. Not necessarily giving a shit about quality. Or maybe deeply caring, but under a set of terms different from the normative ideas about performers. The context for these comments about voice pertain to who gets to speak or sing in mainstream culture today, how much pressure lies on talent, con, or dress size, and at the zenith of that trajectory, stardom. In karaoke the voice is used for other purposes besides emulating a star system: we saw two Korean women who sang Whitney Houston ballads with enormous dignity, face to the side wall, who appeared to be karaoking solely for themselves. We saw (and participated as) people whose main mission was to make their friends crack up. Or radically altered the song’s genre by punking up a bad pop song. We chimed in. We goofed, gothed and fronted. The impulse behind karaoke might be getting over hang-ups without high stakes. Or wanting to rise up out of the everyday. Or picking a song that the group will love and sing along with.

Perhaps it’s about being part of a group play, and the whole thing devolving into laughter. Like children’s play, not games with winners; more like Ring Around the Rosy. There is something radical about the egalitarian nature of this grown-ups’ venture. I’m speculating that people want to participate in playful interactivity that gives them a voice, but whose voice is not judged.
So that is the other key for me in karaoke: the idea of adult play. Adults can play in a sexual arena, in which combinations are at least as varied as the contexts for karaoke (alone, in twosomes, threesomes, in public, etc). I can’t think of other spaces in which that form of equal, non-competitive play exists, in which the goal is as much to please the other(s) as yourself. Brainstorming is supposed to work that way (fun, contributive, uncensored) but rarely does.

Maybe there’s a void that karaoke fills. The group act feels pre-modern to me: people used to sing or make music together in groups, instead of sit on one side of the divide between audience and performer.  There wasn’t as much of an “expert” mode. People didn’t have the access.

Once I gave over to participating in karaoke, and put aside self-consciousness, I was thrilled by the fact that the only “pressure” is to have a good time, and gladden one’s friends. Funnily, it reminds me of the 18th century instruction that art should delight and also elevate the human senses ((“vergnügen und zugleich unterrichten”  J. Winckelmann: 1717 - 1768). We’ve moved away from that tenet in art and pop culture, and there is the possibility that karaoke in contrast has a democratic and aesthetic core: the playing field is leveled, many karaoke goers occupy both roles of actor and audience, and the question of quality  is grounded in pleasuring a peer audience. The singing and the listening becomes a form of gift exchange.
At least in America.

KS: One of the things I have been spending a lot of time thinking about is how karaoke operates culturally, beyond subcultural distinctions related to community or neighborhood (hip hop vs. country western; Chinatown vs. Murphy’s Irish Pub, for example). I am in Southeast Asia at the moment, traveling through Singapore and Tokyo, and have been struck by the way karaoke is literally integrated into the day to day movement of life, to the extent that there are karaoke units installed in the back of taxis. I have been to K clubs filled with row upon of men in business suits singing and drinking together, and in private karaoke booths with three to four women belting out Nancy Sinatra in the middle of the day. 

What has become very clear to me is that karaoke is used and celebrated here not as a marker of an individual’s transformation from person to performer in the way that it might be in the U.S., but rather as a suture stitching individual to group. The performance of one is a representation of the performance of many, of a collective voice voiced (literally) through song. The answer to the question, “Who are you when *you* karaoke,” would require rephrasing in this context. “Who are we when *we* karaoke,” is a much more relevant inquiry. I find this difference in perspective fascinating, as it is reflective of ideas and values held by a society, expressed via an interactive medium.

It is also a perspective that can be tremendously useful as we move forward with our project, feeding an interest in the ways forms of popular culture like karaoke and ice cream trucks act as social interfaces to bring people together in the formation of temporary, yet deeply meaningful communities. This leads me to think about digging a bit deeper into the question of identity, whether expressed via individual or group.    

NN: In our current culture of celebrity and ‘reality;’ I assumed that the driving motivation behind all karaoke is its simulation of stardom. Everyone wants to be a star and karaoke is the perfect $5 fantasy stage. From the performances we’ve seen—and given—it’s clear to me that that this is true, but not exclusively to simulate stardom. Karaoke enables multiple fantasies. And it’s the act, the role-playing, as opposed to the applause, that for most defines the pleasure in karaoke.

Most singers have the sense that their voice isn’t professional grade. Those that do have professionally trained voices (or aspire to as much) often seem to have come to Grandstand, and be appreciated for the greatness of their gift. Their performances are often really good and well-hewn. On-key and strong, with super-bowl-halftime slickness, their professionalism bittersweet, flavored by What-Might-Have-Been.

The rest of us have many more options. We can choose to be humorous in our delivery, to be singing Comedians, who make up for our voices with unexpected departures from the lyric or melody. We can choose to be the Empassioned—despite our vocal shortcomings—we can grip the audience in deep emotion through stance, gesture, and sheer volume. Speaking of which, there are the Yellers, who, when they take the stage with friends, in high school sports team bliss, shriek their way through the song like World Cup Soccer champions.

There are the Earnest performers, who love the song they’re singing and want to do it justice, however that happens best. And then there are the Repeaters, who come night after night and sing the same repertoire, honing their delivery and choreography. They can be really delightful to watch, but also stultifying with a canned performance. We believe the Repeaters show up for the personal satisfaction of perfecting their performance, rather than the group’s enjoyment.

Performances span the spectrum of melodramatic to ironic, with all shades in-between—but these archetypes, and their motivations are what will drive Karaoke Ice next august.

To our Cadre student collaborators, I’d like to ask, what other archetypes have you observed? And what motivates your performance—to which archetypes do you ascribe?

Participant Responses: 

Corrie Tse: I noticed couple of archetypes in my Karaoke experience. The first one is emotion searcher. As pop music tends to highlight emotions and also is written in easy-remember lyrics and melody, often time people get attached to the music unconscientiously. For example, in Hong Kong Karaoke culture, a lot of pop-music evolves around romance. As a result, young teenagers tend to fall into it quickly. They attach to the story lines so much that eventually they need to show their passion by going to Karaoke Bars and scream out the passionate, dramatically written lyrics. And of course, something similar happens to old people who like to reminisce music back then in their days.

The second archetype I observed doesn’t seem to be that appealing but in fact it’s quite common in Asian culture, which is the “night-club” comer. In Asia, Karaoke Bars just like other entertainment businesses open late for business. It’s because everyone hangs out, drink and dance at night (however, business circumstances can still happen during clubbing); eventually, singing becomes a good attraction besides those things. Wanna take your minds off the stressful days, wanna get free drinks and be restlessly dancing, and even wanna get some pretty, sexy girls sitting in while you singing… Karaoke Bars highlight these offers in order to attract customers. Karaoke Bars provide exciting experience; therefore, night-goers continue to come night after night. No doubt about it, Karaoke business is a successful entertainment business for adult consumers.

Speaking of myself, I go to Karaoke Bars for friendly gatherings. Yup! I go there for Birthday parties or celebration parties. I used to think that it’s special, different than the traditions. Instead of blowing the candles at the restaurants, I like throwing cakes at the birthday friend who turns out to be the poor singer. Furthermore, the idea of singing is killing; for most of us it’s just music but for lots of us it’s a joke when an awful voice bursts out. Those Karaoke Boxes really provide people both a private but fun space; I enjoy going there for a different social arena. 


John Bruneau:
We all want to be big stars, yeah but we got different reasons for that.” It's nice to be in the spotlight, knowing full well that we can escape in only a few moments
At least for me, however some of us are driven to repeatedly seek the stage. An archetype I find time and again is the Audience Seeker. An internal force pushes that need for a stage regardless of the form that stage takes. These people are not there to read lyrics. They are there to promote. Still this promotion, often self-promotion, takes the form of a performance. Variants of this archetype can be differentiated based on ideals. Underground rappers looking for an audience find it in karaoke. This variant spits their own rhymes to the selected song's melody. A cousin of the polished performer this Audience Seeker does not recite the words of others, nay they bring their own words to the stage. Yet they often maintain the same polish that is born form relentless repetition and dedication to the work  A second Audience Seeker variant has no musical inclinations what so ever, simply a message. This performer simply takes the mic and stage as a podium or pulpit. Transforming it to a public medium for personal / political / social / sermon / rant / promotion for their ideals. The Audience Seeker sees the karaoke bar's ripe opportunity to become yet another public forum. A forum already prepared to serve as their host. I am sure there is long list other vagrants of this archetype out there. If discovered, please post an addendum.


Angel Adams

The archetypes that I observed on more than one occasion are mainly the participants vs.  non-participants:
The Crazed host/karaoke-lizard: clumsily makes bad jokes and flirts, but takes his/her job very seriously and will become extremely protective of the rules, when provoked. (Example: enforcing the minimum song rule, perhaps just to be able to flirt with as many people as possible?) Jason, Your M.C./the Anti-Remedios chose me as one of his targets that night and I did not feel special, no, no, no, no,  no…
The Pro: is in it to win it. They live and breathe karaoke. They always sing well, sing right, and win every contest. Sometimes they add extra flare or words to a song, but only if it is pleasing to the audience. Come to think of it, sometimes these singers may even forget about the audience.
The Seasoned Veteran: uses “karaoke” as a verb. Like The Pro, they know every word, and don’t have to read the screen, but they jazz it up and remember to have fun. Katie, Nancy, and Marina epitomize this category  and I was mesmerized by their enthusiasm and embracement of certain characters to go with each song. They knew just how to choose crowd-pleasing songs and own the room.
The naive/new participant: is high energy. Once they discover the magic, they want to sing more and more, even if it is a song that they hate. I ascribe to this because this night was my second karaoke experience and I was still starry eyed... but less sure of myself. I tended to try to match the original performer but improvise to hide my mistakes. My performances are motivated by friends in the audience, but, moreover, friends who participate too. I got up and sang a silly song that I don't even know, just because I had someone beside me.
The shy participant: is urged or dragged by friends, barely sings, but sometimes blooms on stage and comes back for more.
The oblivious patron/drinker: might not even realize that they are in a karaoke bar.
The stubborn non-participant: is eager to observe and applaud from the audience only.
I am sure there are many more models and personae, and that is the beauty of Karaoke.


Bruce Gardner:

Oh no.. here's another one up on stage.  Singing a song about "getting lucky tonight."  I can't really understand what he's saying.  It sounds painful.  I'm crying and laughing at the same time.  Yet, the girl he's singing to across the way is thrilled.  Maybe she's drunk too.  As I sip my own beer, and listen to anther sad song, I ponder how this guy ended up here.  He's unshaven, drunk, okay really drunk, and with easy girls.  He likes these sorts of songs the describe pain, grief, agony or how spectacular the evening will be with his girl.  Some of these guys want to be the extra on Star Trek that disappears by dying so easily.  It was like they were never there.  Poof, gone.  Others want to be in Captain Kirk's chair, commanding the magnificent spaceship Enterprise, and "get lucky" this evening with some green alien lady.  The funny thing is, this is Silicon Valley, where the latest technology is design and made.  Where dreams are made too, right?