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?