Karaoke Theory

Karaoke Theory

I argue that karaoke, the non-professional singing of popular songs as a social practice and entertainment, is a way of engaging with emotions in public and suggests the therapeutic potential of singing popular songs. Pop songs often capture a moment, ‘the feeling’ of an era and are a means of circulating ideas and experiences around the world, across cultures and over generations. By participating in karaoke, people identify with these songs and thus build a temporary sense of community and belonging.

By communally singing pop songs, we share history, thoughts, emotions, but for many there are still significant social inhibitions to overcome. Why is it so difficult to sing in public? How did singing become humiliating? Does karaoke’s performance of emotions betray a vulnerability that somehow carries across privilege; forcing a humility that reminds us of a shared precariousness. As Judith Butler (2009) insists, life is always interdependent.

After a recent voicing event I organised with the artist Suva Das in Helsinki, the filmmaker and performer Roxana Sadvo observed that singing is somewhat taboo in many western cultures, proposing that singing had ‘somehow been civilised out of us.’ All this makes me wonder about cultures who do sing — what do they know that we don’t? What are we missing out on? What is the power of song?

Nisha Ramayya (2019), a scholar of tantric poetics, writes that the Sanskrit the word for voice is vaac. Sanskrit was the ancient language of those born into the highest-caste of India’s tiered society. Amongst other things, young Brahmin boys would learn to recite mantras soon after they could speak; chants or songs capable of revealing higher truths and obtaining special powers. Ramayya claims that many people suspected that ‘speaking’ or language was only a small part of what the voice — vaac — could do, and that they were somehow being suppressed by language. Nevertheless India’s multiple spiritual traditions are evidence that ‘lower-caste’ people developed their own magical songs.

Karaoke Theory is an embodied practice that attempts to address this phenomenon. It attempts to a name a thing that is happening and that I argue goes beyond a mutual appreciation of consumable cultural products. Julian Henriques (2011), a theorist of Jamaican sound system culture notes the difference between listening to music on headphones and being in a dancehall ‘bashment’. In the former you put the music in you, in the latter you are in the sound. With Karaoke Theory, I seek to understand what happens when you put the song into you; allow the words to shape your body, the melody pass through you as you sway to its rhythm. When one becomes a vessel for the song, does it possess you?

Poethical De-Scriptings


‘Poethical De-Scriptings’ broadcast live from Pixelache Helsinki Festival #BURN____2021 outside Oodi central library, Helsinki, 7 June, featuring artist and finance activist Ana Fradique and artist-musician Suva Das.

‘Poethical De-scriptings’ is a term I use to describe a practice of live and improvised verbal narrations for radio broadcast.

In her essay, ‘Toward a Black Feminist Poethics’ (2014), Denise Ferriera da Silva proposes ‘poethics’ as a means of emancipating the ‘Category of Blackness’ from the scientific and historical ways of knowing that produced it, with ‘the ethical mandate of opening up other ways of knowing’ (p. 81). Releasing Blackness from objectification, commodification and the forms of domination that produced slavery, a Black Feminist Poethics elicits a range of possibilities that decolonization demands; not for the betterment of this world, but rather toward ‘the end of the world as we know it’.

‘Scriptings’ is a word coined by the artist Achim Lengerer who is concerned with the political questions of speech and language. It is a conflation of the words ‘script’ and ‘writings’, and is also the name of Lengerer’s publishing and production house in Berlin. ‘Scriptings’ also refers to ‘social scripts’, a term borrowed from behavioural psychology to describe knowledge of how to perform adequately in a given situation. One example is how one gets the attention of a waiter in a restaurant. In some circumstances this can be achieved by establishing eye contact, in others it might be acceptable to call, gesticulate and even whistle. While whistling might be inappropriate in the first scenario, attempting to make eye contact might be insufficient in the latter. So knowing the correct social script is crucial to achieving the desired result, as is performing roles correctly to enable social functioning.

My practice of poethical de-scriptings adopts poethics as an approach to being in the world that enables one to delink from the social scripts that one performs by default. It draws from the ‘alt text’ descriptions that often accompany images online to assist those who are visually impaired. Efforts to address issues of accessibility are inherently political. In this example from screen-based media, written and audio descriptions expose the epistemological violence of (hegemonic) visual cultures.

The term ‘access intimacy’ was conceived by writer and disability justice activist Mia Mingus to name the ‘hard to describe feeling’ and ‘eerie comfort’ that arises when someone ‘gets’ her access needs. Access intimacy is not exclusive to disabled people and Mingus (2011) confides:

There have been relationships that carried emotional, physical and political intimacy, but sorely lacked access intimacy. And there have been relationships where access intimacy has helped to create the conditions out of which emotional, familial and political intimacy could grow.

Mingus urges her readers to adopt ‘Access as a framework’ to address a spectrum of needs of those who are (differently) disadvantaged in an ableist world. Furthermore, she distinguishes access intimacy to ‘obligatory access’ that is ‘stoic’ or perfunctory. She writes:

Sometimes access intimacy doesn’t even mean that everything is 100% accessible. Sometimes it looks like both of you trying to create access as hard as you can with no avail in an ableist world. Sometimes it is someone just sitting and holding your hand while you both stare back at an inaccessible world.

My practice of poethical de-scriptings shifts from literal descriptions of my visible surroundings into self-reflection and speculation. While it might sometimes involve close looking and articulation of details, I work in the haze of representation; my poethical de-scriptings may not be visually accurate, but neither are they fiction. Rather, I seek to be personal and precise about what I am see-feeling-thinking.

I approach radio as a medium that is networked and as an event that can be collectively produced and distributed. Rather than the mass media notion of broadcasting to the world, I pursue radio as a social practice that connects peers, friends and enthusiasts. Rather than shouting out to an unknown audience, my technique is more akin to whispering into a lover’s ear.

Attempting audio descriptions made me acutely aware of the power dynamics inherent in language and that are reinforced in everyday speech acts. I discovered that my efforts to communicate clearly and sensitively were determined, and arguably undermined, by social scripts which inform reflexive speech. Foregrounding these codes emphasised that what is ‘normal’ is designed and that these designs condition, noticeably in the built environment and ‘public sphere’. Indeed, it reveals the prejudices of normativity and how one is positioned relative to authority.

As such, poethical de-scriptings attempts to deconstruct and dismantle these power dynamics through an improvised verbal practice. It makes one acutely aware of how ‘words shape worlds’; how ‘worlding’ is material-discursive and how language is privileged as knowledge. Towards the end of the live broadcast embedded above, the artist Suva  demonstrates his hand percussion skills on the ‘Konch’ urban furniture in which I was seated. It is an example of how such a skilled musician can ‘talk with their hands’. This might be phonetic, as Suva mimics the sound of language with percussion. Suva also refers to pre-established cultural codes that might announce an event such as the birth of a child, a wedding or war, emphasising that drumming can also be emotive, making using of texture, pattern and abstraction.

Extending out towards non-verbal communication such as humming and drumming, poethical de-scriptings seeks to jailbreak language from the authority it is deployed to uphold and shift ways of being-in-relation in the world.

PIXELACHE HELSINKI FESTIVAL 2021: #BURN____

Pixelache Helsinki Burn 2021

Pixelache Helsinki Festival 2021 #Burn____, co-directed by artist-organiser Andrew Gryf Paterson and author Laura Gustafsson, takes place this year with limited access in selected spaces inside Oodi Central Library in Helsinki and outside the front canopy of Oodi, as well as online, from the 6th to the 13th of June 2021. The theme of the festival #Burn____, anticipated in late summer 2019, sets the context of the festival contributions, reflecting on mental health, social solidarity and struggle as well as on ecological crisis.

After a year of excessive screen-based meetings, the festival re-adopts one of the oldest media forms at physical distance from another – radio – seems to be the idea of making a festival event with local and international contributors in consideration of mobility and gathering restrictions. With the established experience of hybrid radio, Pixelache brings a localised listening mix of audio works from two open calls, a live radio stream of festival events especially made or adapted for radio, emerging sound artists, podcasts, and interviews with festival artists and contributors. During the festival, the public can interact with a local FM radio broadcasting around Oodi. Bring Your Own Radio (BYOR) to listen, and if you like a blanket or picnic!

fugitive radio is planning a series of live and collectively produced outside broadcasts for Pixelache #Burn. We will meet outside Oodi Central Library from 14.00 everyday of the festival. If you’re curious to make live experimental radio with us bring your smartphone and a pair of wired earbuds. These work as an antenna on your smartphone if it has an FM receiver (look for the app!) Also bring a bluetooth speaker if you have one. After a little warm up, we will begin streaming online between 15.00 and 16.00 each day, thanks to {openradio}. We will also be broadcasting to a limited range around Oodi on 91.4 FM. If you can’t make it to Oodi you could join us remotely — we’re working on a platform! Updates will be posted on fugitive-radio.net and our Telegram channel. Follow us on Insta: fugitive.radio.

fugitive schedule
Sun 06: Roaming Radiophonic Picnic — sites and sounds of the Oodi broadcast zone.
Mon 07: Poethical De-Scriptings
Tue 08: ‘Swings & Ropes’ with Irina Mutt
Wed 09: The Snow Globe Effect: post-vax mental health chit chat with Tania Nathan
Thu 10: Hum Klub
Fri 11: Karaoke
Sat 12: ‘Cacerolazo’ environmental percussion with Suva Das
Sun 13: ‘Democracy Day!’ What do you think?

To participate online please download SonoBus, a free and open source, multi-user audio streaming application. Check back here on Sunday 6 June for details about how to join our room.