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December 28, 2007

Filed under: music»performance

Carry OK

For my family, Christmas is a time to sit around and talk. For Belle's family, my impressions are that it's quite a bit noisier, and involves karaoke.

I'll be honest: I never really got the appeal of karaoke before. It always seemed silly to me. To a musician, the idea of performing with a pre-taped backing track is vaguely akin to cheating--not to mention not nearly as much fun as playing the songs for real.

But on Tuesday, I had a kind of an epiphany while watching people sing along with the cheesy MIDI versions of "Desperado" and a long set of Filipino pop songs. There's a kind of feeling that comes from being in a band and playing music with other people--performers share energy through the act of coordinating rhythm and melody. It's a communal experience. Karaoke is a way for people who think that they're not good at music to get that same feeling.

It reminds me of a passage from Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music:

Jim Ferguson, whom I have known since high school, is now a professor of anthropology. Jim is one of the funniest and most fiercely intelligent people I know, but he is shy - I don't know how he manages to teach his lecture courses. For his doctoral degree at Harvard, he performed field work in Lesotho, a small nation completely surrounded by South Africa. There, studying and interacting with a local villagers, Jim patiently earned their trust until one day he was asked to join in one of their songs. So, typically, when asked to sing with these Sotho villagers, Jim said in a soft voice, "I don't sing," and it was true: we had been in high school band together and although he was an excellent oboe player, he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. The villagers found his objection puzzling and inexplicable. The Sotho consider singing an ordinary, everyday activity performed by everyone, young and old, men and women, not an activity for a special few.

Our culture and indeed our very language makes a distinction between a class of expert performers - the Arthur Rubensteins, Ella Fitzgeralds, Paul McCartneys - and the rest of us. The rest of us pay money to hear the experts entertain us. Jim knew that he wasn't much of a singer or dancer, and to him, a public display of singing and dancing implied he thought himself an expert. The villagers just stared at Jim and said, "What do you mean you don't sing?! You talk!" Jim told me later, "it was as odd to them as if I told them that I couldn't walk or dance, even though I have both my legs." Singing and dancing were a natural activity in everybody's lives, seamlessly integrated and involving everyone. The Sesotho verb for singing ( ho bina ), as in many of the world's languages, also means to dance; there is no distinction since it is assumed that singing involves bodily movement.

That's the value of karaoke, and of Guitar Hero and Rock Band: they break down the barriers between "musicians" and "the rest of us," and allow people who don't think of themselves as musical (due to a deficiency in our cultural attitudes) to get in on the fun. For these purposes, the technical proficiency of the performance is less important than the community feeling it fosters. Criticising them for not being "real music" is beside the point.

Future - Present - Past