Karaoke Theory / Karaoke Therapy

Below are edited excerpts from a performative panel-presentation I delivered at X-disciplinary Congress on Artistic Research and Related Matters, Vilnius Academy of Arts & SODAS 2123, 14-17 October 2021. In preparing this presentation, I realised that the key issue I sought to address was a perceived inhibition about singing in public. Noting that many ‘non-literate’ cultures use song as a vehicle for knowledge and as a ‘memory code’, according to researcher and author Lynne Kelly, I wonder what we ‘Westernized Moderns’ are missing out on, especially with reference to the academic formatting of knowledge as it is occurring in the arts. The discussion at the conference honed in on notions of perfection, but the issue of a kind of ‘performance anxiety’ around singing in public remains compelling. 

‘Singing has been somehow colonised out of us!’
I approach song as a learning tool, as a means to convey knowledge and structure feeling. In particular, I would like to address a perceived inhibition about singing in public, which I propose is a kind of trauma. This was prompted by the Helsinki-based filmmaker and stand-up comedian, Roxana Sadvo, who recently told me that she suspects that ‘singing has been somehow colonised out of us’.

In his 2006 book This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J Levitin, a North American cognitive neuroscientist, author, musician and sound engineer, notes that it is only recently that a distinction was made between classes of music performers and music listeners in Western societies.

Only relatively recently in our own culture, five hundred years or so ago, did a distinction arise that cut society in two, forming separate classes of music performers and music listeners. Through out most of the world and for most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, and everyone participated. (Levitin, 2006)

As a neuroscientist, Levitin has researched how music alters our moods and brain chemistry and cites studies that demonstrate how music stimulates all areas of the brain. Indeed, in his 2008 book The World in Six Songs, he argues that the human brain evolved with song:

Before there was language, our brains did not have the full capacity to learn language, to speak or to represent it. As our brains developed both the physiological and cognitive flexibility to manipulate symbols, language emerged gradually, and the use of rudimentary verbalizations—grunts, calls, shrieks, and groans—further stimulated the growth potential for the types of neural structures that would support language in the broadest sense. (Levitin, 2008)

Singing as ‘Soma Technique’
Recently I came across the work of the Finnish ethnomusicologist, musician and therapist Anne Tarvainen, who also claims that in the West, singing is split between those can sing — that is, those who are gifted, trained and professionalised — and those who cannot, who are cast as audiences, admirers and connoisseurs.

Tarvainen works with singers, both amateur and professional, who due to illness or injury, now experience difficulty vocalising. She expands on the work of the North American (pragmatist) philosopher Richard Shusterman who has been developing a concept of ‘Somaesthetics’ since the 1990s. As Tarvainen explains in a recent article for the Journal of Somaesthetics:

One of the main ideas of somaesthetics is that bodily experience can be cultivated. By practicing body consciousness, one can free oneself from harmful bodily manners and improve one’s overall quality of life. Shusterman suggests that a researcher working in the field of somaesthetics should not only approach things analytically but also critically examine the physical practices of our culture, suggest new forms of somatic conventions, and put them into practice. (Tarvainen 2019, p.8)

Tarvainen is developing a branch of this field that she names ‘vocal somaesthetics’ alongside a form of vocal therapy, ‘Voicefulness’, in which Tarvainen encourages her clients to approach singing according to what feels good in their body, rather than adhering to established music conventions. Such ‘unorthodox’ singing is a means of transforming the body — it is a way of doing the body. Singing as ‘soma technique’. So if singing makes us feel good and make us smarter, why aren’t we karaoking everyday?

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?