When innocent singing turns violent.
Think back to the records you loved during high school, that four-year labor camp of self-actualization: Some may still resonate today, but a lot of them sound dated and naïve because you deployed them mostly to help establish some desired persona, whether it be rebel, rake, or faux-poet.I listened to a lot of noisy, caustic music in my senior year, even though I'd attended an Indigo Girls concert only two years prior. At the time, I regarded a slight of my favorite bands—the ones whose logo I'd pinned to my jacket or written on my notebook—as a slight of me.
Historically, this music-as-proxy phase wanes after adolescence. But our musical preferences now define our personalities in almost every aspect of our day-to-day, presumably grown-up lives. Each ringtone, each embedded MP3 player, each customized ZIP-file mix is an unsubtle broadcast to those around us, letting them know who we really are. (Few artists have fostered this quite like Beyoncé, whose career was built on to-the-point self-declarations—"Diva," "Irreplaceable," "Beautiful Liar"—that happen to sound fantastic even when crackling from a cell-phone.) Band-logo patches and concert T's have been replaced by Facebook widgets and custom iPod sleeves.
And, it appears, replaced by our karaoke selections. Granted, not every karaoke performance is a three-minute glimpse of the id. But often, songs are chosen for what they convey about the singer, either through lyrics (Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'N' Roll"), through attitude (anything by Kid Rock or Pink), or through some unspoken yet widely understood subtext: One of the reasons Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" is an extremely popular karaoke song is not that the singer necessarily likes big butts—though this could be true—but because the singer wants to be known as wacky and carefree. I've seen people bond, flirt, and even reconcile with one another through song choices. So if karaoke songs really are projections of our personalities, it's fitting that these personalities sometimes clash, too.
But why karaoke bars? Aren't there slightly more dignified locations in which to cold-cock a stranger? While it would be foolish to downplay the effects of alcohol, it also certainly doesn't help that so many aspiring singers tend to practice on the Internet, where even the most vicious criticism is tempered by anonymity or distance or both. As a result, karaoke performers are often unaccustomed to the sort of live-action cultural criticism that can arise from the front row at 2:15 a.m. on a Saturday, which is why so many of these karaoke-bar attacks (at least, the ones in America) are sudden and ill-conceived, minor tiffs that quickly get out of control. No one seems to quite know what they're doing. They're amateurs, in every sense of the word.
Sadly, I fear that these incidents are only going to increase in the coming years: Thanks in part to the popularity of American Idol, more bars are hosting karaoke nights now, and the jockeying for slots has grown increasingly competitive. The raw nerves and idiosyncratic personalities that help make karaoke bars so appealing are also what make them so volatile. This may be bad for bar owners, but if fear of karaoke rage helps keep the song queue to a minimum, it's great news for needy exhibitionists such as myself.
Brian Raftery writes for Wired and Spin. He's the author ofDon't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life.
Photograph of karaoke singer by Ryan McVay/Digital Vision.