by tjm Holden

13 February 2007


No matter where we travel in this peripatetic world, there are a few universals we’ll inevitably stumble across: taxes, corruption, commercialism, kitsch, artistic expression, hope against all odds, selflessness, selfishness, true love. Maybe a few others. Math. Sports on the weekend. Spirits—often in the form of beer. The idea of education. The tendency to settle disputes with fisticuffs.

Cultural universals are what anthropologists like to point to as signs of humanity’s general similarity. As proof that no matter how unique we may claim to be—either individually or as a collection of somehow-like-defined folk—we are actually all cut of the same general cloth. These universals do not have to be genetic traits or indigenous to the social organism; they can be acquired and installed in the heart of a culture via practices. Repeated repetition; social sanction.

That is where we are heading—a universal that is such because it is practiced . . . everywhere. And—stop being so antsy!—we’re about to get there.
Well almost.

When I was a grad student—way back before the Kyoto Protocol and around the time of the fall of the Soviet Bloc—one of my professors categorized cultural universals. It may not have been his original idea, but it did end up in his book, and between the groupings of “material” (or made things) and “non-material” (or more conceptual things), he suggested eight such universals. Among these were art and so, too, technology—tangible products of human creativity, design and fabrication—in which ideas, social structures, behaviors, norms and other less tangible things exist. And within those two quite large rubrics, there are any number of cross-overs: products of human action in which the twain are wed. Canvas, movies, photographs, CDs, DVDs, and MP3s are among these. And so, too, karaoke. Bridging products—all—that involve the encapsulation of art within technology.

Karaoke—or what is often referred to in the non-Japanese world as “kary-ohkey” or “kary-OK”—is everywhere, of course; sprouted up and thriving in this wide, traversable world of ours. You certainly have heard of, if not actually participated in, it. It is the participation that I wish to draw attention to, for it is in its performance that the finer distinctions of culture can be made. Distinctions which help point out to us the differing nature of various societies (even in the midst of our engaging in the consumption of universality). For, while karaoke may be a commonly shared thing, no less than art or science, the Japanese incarnation will likely differ, say, from the Mongolian or Australian variants, in ways that can tell us something more, something meaningful, about the society in which it is practiced.

This may be neither here nor there for you, but it is in this kind of comparison that makes the socks of scientists of culture prickle with static electricity and stand at immediate attention. For, it is in this sort of material/non-material fusion that the symbiotic, and essential, links between where we live, how and why, is revealed. For social analysts like me, this is like stumbling across the Rosetta Stone . . . well, okay, maybe just the password to a lover’s private email address. But, the point is: karaoke, in this way, is what we’d call a valuable “indicator” that helps reveal deeper structure, hidden truth, sublime reality.

No kidding.

I was thinking about the karaoke thing because I had occasion to go perform it a few days back. A few of the students in my research unit were graduating and we decided to fete them. There was a first round of interactivity—the semi-formal dinner, held at a local eatery where everyone sits with their stockinged feet under the table and platters are passed around the assembled horde—and then a second round—as is the Japanese custom—for whoever wished to continue the gluttonous revelry, in another establishment. In this case—and you guessed it—at a karaoke joint. There are literally scores of such places in the short chunk of real estate that constitutes my city’s drinking district. Hundreds in the city, hundreds of thousands in this country, alone. I won’t go so far as to say that “no two are alike”—because clearly there are “types” (ranging from the tavern with two mics and a screen behind the bar, to the full service restaurant with private rooms for feasting, drinking and singing unperturbed by folks outside one’s group). And in this way, the practice of karaoke begins to simulate the society, itself. For, the self-enclosure in one’s own group is the kind of insularity that simulates what is called “uchi” (or inside-group-ness) that is an organizing principle in this country.

We, the group who created a hermetic cocoon-like entity within Eatery 1, stood as one, exited in an individuated dance of hotch-potch retrieval of boots and loafers and pumps and shoes, then remassed into that buttery, insular congregation of “our uchi”. And onward we marched—our uchi re-generating itself with each shoulder-to-shoulder step toward Eatery 2.

Aside from the uchi thing there are other structural principles that one can divine in Japanese karaoke—and it is also here where one can begin to see the cultures separate. In Japan, for instance, everyone is expected to sing. Of course, there are those stalwarts who hold out against repeated insistence from left and right to pluck up the mic (and toss aside their pride)—but for the most part everyone will select at least one song and endure their 15 seconds of shame.

Having done so they are roundly rewarded with applause and excused from any further participation, if that is their preference (since it is probably the fervent wish of the rest of the assemblage!)

For those with the chops, though, regardless of whatever they are known to be able to do (or not do) outside of the karaoke studio, this is their moment to shine. And so many do—seek to shine that is—because this is their chance to step out of the rigid ordering principle that governs the rest of their every-work-a-day lives.

While the “stepping out to star” may not be very different than the way humans behave in any number of societies, the structural logic—embodied in a magical social phenomenon, really—is. For those without status who open their mouths to croon, their audienced-others, gathered around the table or seated on the sofas, will nearly certainly listen politely for a few moments then, if the performance is in no way engaging, soon drift back into their previous conversation or dig back into their plate of vittals. By contrast, those who do have status—and no matter how grating or shrill their vocal chords may warble and throb—every audience member will automatically (but actually through invisible, irresistible compulsion) stop speaking and joshing and paying attention to their food or drink in mid-endeavor and sustain that affected-interest for as long as the singer wields his or her tool of aural torture.

Poor things.

Call it the “iron law of hierarchy”, as revealed by kary-okie.

Or else, file it under the heading “Social order, cultural principles, exposed by song”.


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