Zen and the Art of Karaoke

Let me tell you about three different approaches to karaoke.  The first involves singing in a room with friends, and I believe has its origins in Japan.  The second has its origins in the Midwest, and has affinities with the American Idol tradition.  The third has its roots in European Classical Music and/or mid-20th century jazz – it could be called the “standards” tradition, but its roots are actually much older than that.  The actual geography or history isn’t so important – these are rough glosses used as proxies for talking about approach and technique.

If you go out to karaoke bars in New York City, you’ll notice that the karaoke tradition is different from that of the Midwest.  The NYC format favors room-style karaoke, where a group of friends rent a room, and then sing to one another over a period of time, where they are typically charged by the hour.  The format is nice in that it is more conducive to group singing, since people within a group typically know the same songs.  Also, for the more timid, the format is more welcoming, since people sing in front of their friends, and friends tend to cheer each other on.  From what I gather of karaoke history and Japanese television, this is the format that existed in Japan – and in fact, most of the karaoke joints that you find in NYC are Japanese or Korean influenced, so I think the NYC format has Japanese and Korean roots.  I like to call this the “best friends” approach to karaoke.  Singing in this format is a kind of communal activity – perhaps lacking in terms of artistic ambition, but nevertheless a good way to spend a Saturday night.

The NYC format is to be distinguished from the Midwestern or bar-style karaoke format.  Under the Midwestern system, karaoke services are purchased by a bar, where the bar provides floor space for music, and a karaoke jockey (or KJ) provides the hardware and software to run a karaoke night on a designated day of the week (usually a weekday).  Because the idea of a karaoke-only establishment in the Midwest is a little too fanciful, it doesn’t make sense to start a business, where you devote significant real estate to karaoke rooms.  It makes more sense to take an existing multi-purpose space and designate it for karaoke use on off-nights.  And so, economics leads to a difference in performance format.  Since groups can’t rent a room with walls to prevent interaction with outsiders, if you want to do karaoke, you have to sing to strangers.  This fact allowed the “American-Idol” approach to take hold in the U.S..  Since performers are placed on a stage, and forced to sing in front of strangers, the bar-style format tends to be prohibitive to people with more shy temperaments.  Instead, it encourages show-offs, who sing for seal claps and wolf whistles.  The advent of American-Idol cemented an approach to karaoke that prizes spectacle – usually in the forms of belting, holding notes, complex runs, and imitation.

There is a third format, but its existence is not a function of economics or venue, rather it has its origins in the centuries old tradition of classical music.  The more familiar modern equivalent is the concept of a “standard”.  A standard is simply a song, where it is known that many people sing it, and each person known to sing it is known for their particular manner of singing it.  So, for instance Frank Sinatra has his own version of “Autumn in New York”, and Billie Holiday does too.  And in fact, you can sing your own version of the song, though probably nobody will ever remember it.  Nevertheless, it will be your own version, and there’s nothing Frank Sinatra can do to take that away from you.

This tradition is different from the previous ones, in that it focuses specifically on the concept of interpretation, a relatively lost art (even among modern jazz singers), where a performance of a standard reflects choices that a singer makes in presenting a particular song to an audience.  I noted earlier its roots in the classical tradition.  As it happens, the “standards” tradition is somewhat more limited than the classical one, in that “standards” tend to be those songs that are popularly performed, whereas classical musicians take the interpretive approach to music in general – that is to say, any song is a standard.  The tradition is fantastically more advanced than the modern conception of the “cover”.  As it is implemented in popular music, a cover is simply the thing that happens when a singer attempts to sing someone else’s song and they can’t help but sing it the way they sing everything else.  Modern singers are passive artists, trapped by their own signature sound.  The art of interpretation, on the other hand, involves choices, which allow the resulting music to be an expression of the artist, and not a mere byproduct of the artist’s circumstances.  I will have more to say about the classical approach another time.

Returning back to karaoke, it becomes evident that the classical or “standards” approach can be used for any song – the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Lullaby of Birdland, even Billy Joel.  So, karaoke is a kind of wonderland waiting for application of the classical approach.  With an attentive ear and the right attitude, one can go into any karaoke joint, down a shot of whiskey, and practice the ancient art – whether it be in a room with friends or at a bar in front of strangers.  Frankly, it won’t matter where you are, because if you are doing it right, you will be lost in the moment, the virtuous artist, consumed by your own expressive force.