An Ode to Karaoke

It’s one in the morning and the drinks have been wiped out. The night is still young, and no one is ready to head home. You’re at a loose end until someone asks, “Karaoke night?” And that’s how you wind up at a karaoke bar screaming the words to My Chemical Romance till the break of day.

Karaoke: a fun activity, a modern art form even, synonymous with drunken shenanigans and raucous parties. A necessary release from the humdrum of our daily lives. Whether you’re belting out a soulful rendition of Don’t Stop Believing or butchering the lyrics to a Jay Chou song or if you have a killer set of pipes or can’t carry a tune – there’s a place for everyone in karaoke. I am a karaoke fiend, and I probably had a small karaoke-shaped hole in my life before I discovered it. If you’re a karaoke hater, I’m inclined to believe that you’re just in denial of your primal belting desires.

So why do we like karaoke?

Karaoke has its roots in the Japanese phrase “kara okesutura” which translates to “empty orchestra”, alluding to the nature of karaoke which consists of musical accompaniment devoid of vocals. The Japanese novelty which came to fruition in the early 70’s has become a worldwide phenomenon. Daisuke Inoue, creator of the modern sensation, says, “I was nominated for an Ig Nobel Peace Prize as the inventor of karaoke, which teaches people to bear the awful singing of ordinary citizens, and enjoy it anyway.”

Simply put, karaoke is the hobby of being a star. As a kid, you were celebrated for a multitude of achievements. Straight A’s on your report card, losing your last baby tooth, a piano recital, hitting the sweet sixteen. As you get older, you realize that the opportunities to receive praise and adulation are few and far between. Getting a degree, a promotion at work, buying your first house. Karaoke is one of the few hobbies you can have that transforms you into a rock star and earns you applause, if only for four minutes at a time, and regardless of your vocal prowess. Perhaps what makes karaoke so amazing is the rare chance it presents to take yourself less seriously. In karaoke, talent means nada; enthusiasm is everything. It is nearly impossible to be bad at karaoke. I say nearly, because no one likes a half-assed performance or a bad song selection. A song that has more instrumental breaks than vocals is four minutes of your life you will never get back. You’d better be prepared to air guitar for a good 2.5 minutes if you’re adding November Rain to your song queue. On the other hand, some songs like My Heart Will Go On just put something of a downer on the experience. A song that’s been sung to death? Hard pass. As long as you don’t pick songs that are a flagrant violation of the implicit rules of karaoke, it is basically a musical pursuit with the promise of little to no risk of failure. No matter where you stand on the spectrum of vocal abilities, all you have to do is kick up your heels, open your mouth, and sing with enthusiasm. And afterward, people applaud.

With the plethora of karaoke establishments that can be found along the roads of Singapore, and even stalls resembling photo booths that fit up to three, it’s fair to say your karaoke experience will be a highly customizable one. If solo karaoke is your kind of thing, you can even purchase a karaoke system and have a karaoke party in the privacy of your home. Even if you don’t sing, it’s still the perfect spectator sport for you, Karaoke Voyeur. After all, there are fewer things more entertaining than watching your friends emit orca sounds and slurred melismas to songs after they’ve had one too many drinks. Not to mention, it might make for some interesting stories (and videos) too. Whether you’re a bit of an exhibitionist or a voyeur, or something in between, there’s no shortage of options for you when it comes to karaoke.

There is no specific occasion that calls for karaoke. Healing personal heartbreaks? A long-awaited night of revelry after your last paper? Need to let off steam after a stressful day at work? These are all perfect reasons to hit the karaoke bar. We go to karaoke not to listen to art being performed, but to make art ourselves. Karaoke is an instrument for us to present the most naked version of ourselves, a safe place for us to be in public as we are in private; for the manifestation of vulnerabilities. We perform lines written by someone else, reinterpreting their words to reflect our own experiences and temperaments. It could be the nostalgia of rediscovering songs that acted as placeholders in different phases of our journey, the tracks that captured all the messy bits of adolescence. Or simply, fulfilling our basic desires to blast out a tune. Either way, there is a beauty in karaoke in that it is for everyone, for whatever purpose it serves for them.

If you can’t make time for karaoke, there’s always the car or the shower, both of which predate karaoke machines. My childhood featured a good many car rides set to a soundtrack of songs that have seen me through my awkward high school days, and even now through this turbulent early-20s phase where I’m still figuring out how adulting works. Whenever certain feelings hit, at any point of life, I always go back to the same tunes that accompanied me on those car rides, the very same tunes I can’t leave the karaoke bar without singing. And of course, we all morph into professional singers in the shower.

Kara okesutura: bring that voice out of the shower, and to the mic.

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