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?

fugitive frequency episode 07: La Cabaret

La Cabaret – Nail polish

‘Welcome to La Cabaret, an open invitation to mix politics and pleasure, with the energy of cabarets, queer bars and block parties to celebrate that despite all the struggles, we can make room for joy.’

‘La Cabaret’ was a post-porn salon of sorts, curated and hosted by Irina Muttin in her share apartment in Rastila, East Helsinki. First broadcast live on June five on {openradio}, it features Frau Diamanda, Elina Nissinen, lintulintu, Yes Escobar and Roxana Savdo amongst other guests.

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 is not necessarily literal, but also 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 to accentuate other ways of relating in the world.