by Xun Zhou
[ strangeness - july 07 ]
Karaoke emerged in Japan about 30 years ago, at the peak of the country's economic growth. It was originally a typical night time entertainment for the rising salarymen. Karaoke nightclubs provided them with a public space, a centre for male conviviality, where they could drop in with their colleagues after a hard day at work, have a few drinks and enjoy singing popular songs or military tunes. To them, Karaoke combined with drink served as the ultimate form of stress relief from the tedious monotony of the corporate world.
Almost contemporary to the Japanese economic boom in the 70s and 80s, Karaoke has since proliferated and has been commercialised. Similarly to other Japanese products, Karaoke practice has spread throughout the world. During the last 20 years, Karaoke has enjoyed the status of a global generation-spanning leisure/night time cultural practice. The term ‘Karaoke’, pronounced and written in many different ways, is now part of common language usage. It is listed not only in Japanese dictionaries but also in the latest edition of The Oxford English Dictionary. From Korea, China, Southeast Asia, to the US and Europe, the world is witnessing a massive 'Karaoke explosion'.
In each of these regions, Karaoke bears different features and characteristics and embodies different meanings and symbolism. As with other forms of entertainment and social activity, the history of the popularisation of Karaoke is a continuing process of transformation, involving complex patterns of incorporation, interaction and opposition. In how and where it is performed, Karaoke is fundamental to the definition and creation of social groups and classes.
For different people Karaoke embodies specific meanings and symbolism, which are particular to the local culture. For instance in China, Karaoke is a strong tie that binds the family together in an age when generational gap and the pressures of modern life have become a threat to the traditional extended family structure. While it functions as a form of stress relief for many who try to cope with the pressure of modern life, it can be equally a means to divert 'boredom' in rural societies. Furthermore, Karaoke has been used as an educational tool. In Japan and South East Asia, it has penetrated into the public school system. Many young people go to Karaoke venues in order to learn English: many of them not only sing the local popular songs, but also Western pop songs with English words written on the screen. In the West, Karaoke has found its way into the existing bar and pub culture, where people used to sing together around a piano.
Today there are almost as many different kinds of karaoke venues as there are karaoke songs. In Japan, as in the rest of East Asia, people like to sing at ‘karaoke boxes’, known as noraebang or ‘song room’ in Korea. These are small and less small rooms that can be hired, and which contain karaoke screens and digital equipment as well as couches and coffee tables. In China, large establishments are devoted exclusively to karaoke: modern high-rises containing hundreds of identical ‘karaoke television rooms’ or KTV. The rooms can range from relatively cheap and simply furnished ones where users are content with home-style karaoke technology, to lavishly-decorated private lounges replete with the latest high-tech facilities. Most hotels would also offer karaoke facilities, both in the form of karaoke rooms and/or karaoke bars. In various parts of Asia, karaoke fans can also sing to their heart’s content on trains, buses, boats, and even in their own cars. In Europe and North America too, karaoke venues vary a lot, ranging from standard bars, cafes, or pubs to quasi-Chinese or Japanese karaoke lounges in London and Brussels to restaurants cum karaoke in Paris. Recently, Anglican and Methodist British church-goers have also turned to a form of 'ecclesiastical karaoke' in their churches, singing along to the tunes of self-defined 'digital hymnals'. In New York, Brett Schultz, in a project entitled 'God Given Talent: Epiphityic Architecture and the Trans-spectacular Karaoke Box', invented a portable structure designed to facilitate 'rooftop karaoke parties' on the thousands and thousands of square feet of unutilised rooftop space.
In recent years, Karaoke has also become a regular feature to appear in film, theatre, literature, fine arts, and to catch photographers' eyes, from the late British author Dennis Porter's television play Karaoke and Cold Lazarus to the award wining Korean artist Bul Lee's karaoke installation 'Cyborgs and Karaoke' (2002), in which karaoke became symbol for a 'global' fusion culture. Perhaps the most known is Sofia Coppola's Oscar winning film Lost in Translation. The film was one of the biggest hit in 2003: suddenly everyone in the audience wanted joining Bill Murray and singing Karaoke to Roxy Music's 'More Than This.' Subsequently the soundtrack of the film, with a mixture of new and old songs from the United States, France, Japan and Britain, championed to be a top seller in 2004, and the Karaoke kan (a chain of Karaoke box) in Tokyo, where Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) took Bob (Bill Murray) to, became a popular tourist hunt.. Karaoke is no longer an exclusively Asian phenomenon, rather, it is a global phenomenon.