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Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon

Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco

(Reaktion Books)

We’ve seen them all: books on drugs, hip-hop, grafitti, adolescence, modern fashion. They usually come in the form of large, colorful coffee table-style tomes, glistening with satin-smooth paper, in every way appealing to our desire for useless pop culture knowledge. Don’t think that Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon is much different; it isn’t. But is that such a bad thing? Guilty pleasure or otherwise, we all watch VH1’s Behind the Music for the same superficial, pseudo-interested reasons—think of Karaoke the same way.


But unlike the popular television show, Karaoke gives pop culture an academic edge, making the book more like the result of a research project than something written for entertainment purposes only. Authors Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco, both professors at universities in England, strut their scholastic stuff by drawing on self-collected data to form incredibly intricate conclusions about the impacts of karaoke.


Some are plausible, such as the assertion that karaoke is the perfect example of international exchange, “crossing multiple spaces, at different levels, through different media.” Others are somewhat hollow, based on single observations and not much else. Take the statement that karaoke is “a tool in forging diplomatic ties,” which Xun and Tarocco used to describe the effects of Tom Cruise singing karaoke with the Chinese prime minister during his promotion for The Last Samurai.


That the authors come up with some overgeneralizations is not surprising. Karaoke is quite the comprehensive little book, covering nearly every region of the globe in an attempt to “emphasiz[e] [karaoke’s] development, spread, social transformation, and effect in different parts of the world.” A valiant effort, and often very successful, especially in the chapters on east Asia. Xun and Tarocco cover China, Thailand, Japan, Cambodia, and South Korea with precision, paying special attention to karaoke’s birth. They constantly contrast the style of Asian karaoke, which takes place in a private space, with Western karaoke, which is usually a public affair.


But Xun and Tarocco very clearly state in the introduction that their book is not “an encyclopaedia of karaoke, nor ... a Lonely Planet guide to karaoke around the world.” Well, you had me fooled. Perhaps I should have taken the subtitle, “The Global Phenomenon”, a little less literally. The authors instead seem to pick and choose the countries they wish to include in their book, rather than research every region of the world where karaoke plays a prominent role in society. Their point is still clear, though I am not sure if leaving out the entire continent of Africa would undermine their conclusions on the ubiquity of karaoke throughout the world.


That said, Karaoke is not your average coffee table book. Despite its flaws, it takes what is seen as a superficial topic and gives it a profound meaning. Even after the rampant oversimplification, Xun and Tarocco are careful to include every aspect of karaoke in their book, even the most obscure. They go so far as to cover “Karaoke for the Soul,” or the role of karaoke in religion, which turns out to be both positive (as it is used for evangelism purposes) and negative (many a Buddhist monk has been “defrocked” as result of being seen at karaoke bars). There is a whole chapter devoted to the Nikkeijin, Japanese-Brazilians who, though they make up a comparitively small population, host some of the world’s most intense karaoke competitions. The authors delve into karaoke technology, such as the popular (and my personal favorite) video game Karaoke Revolution, and even explore the bizarre “pornaoke” found in British Columbia, Canada. At the close of the book, the point is clear: karaoke is not as simple as you think.


But what element of pop culture ever is? I doubt that Andy Warhol made his famous album cover for the Velvet Underground simply because he loved bananas. Karaoke is more than a couple of drunk kids shouting into microphones, as I found out upon reading this book. I imagine that karaoke, like barroom etiquette, would be difficult to conceive doing in any way other than your own. But take the privacy of the noraebang, or “song box” of east Asia, and compare it to the rowdy karaoke nights of any bar in New York City, and you will see Xun and Tarocco’s point in writing Karaoke better than anyone else.


But are their findings as applicable to life as they are in print? Will I bond with strangers and discover my inner diva? Will I make peace with that little voice that keeps telling me to just get off the stage and save some face? Naturally, I decided to experience the global and life-changing effects of karaoke for myself. Beginning the night with a first-pumping chorus of Bon Jovi’s “Bed of Roses,” I felt like a foolish, female version of the rocker himself, complete with a wireless mic and untamed hair. Perhaps the karaoke-related revelation happened sometime during my song, but I think I was having too much fun to notice.


Rating: 6

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