When innocent singing turns violent.
Last November, an inebriated 24-year-old with the woefully apt name of Kyle Drinkwine was found by police in the back of a Wisconsin alley, his hands covered in blood. According to testimony compiled by the Smoking Gun, Drinkwine had spent the evening unwinding at Emma's Bar, a local watering hole that was hosting a karaoke night. Shortly after performing an Eminem song, he allegedly became so enraged by another patron's version of "Holy Diver"—the 1983 anthem by heavy-metal patriarch Ronnie James Dio—that he assaulted the singer and his friend and fled when police arrived. "This had started … over one's ability to sing karaoke," notes the arrest report, which reads like a Mike Judge novella.
Drinkwine's sad, stupid plight wasn't an isolated incident: In August 2007, a Seattle man was assaulted onstage during a karaoke rendition of Coldplay's "Yellow," while last December, a San Diego man encored his karaoke set by walking toward the crowd and attacking an audience member. And in Asia, there's been a string of karaoke-bar stabbings and shootings, including a horrific incident in Bangkok in which eight amateur singers were murdered by their neighbor, reportedly due in part to his hatred of John Denver's "Country Roads."
As someone who's performed, miserably, at karaoke bars worldwide—including a three-day stint aboard a Finnish "karaoke cruise ship"—I was perplexed by these attacks. After all, I've survived countless moments of sanity-needling karaoke without ever once resorting to violence, even when it would have been justified; there's no greater example of self-restraint than sitting in a sweltering Bangkok beer garden, watching a drunken Polish man deflower Starship's "We Built This City." In 10 years and seven countries, the only karaoke-related tension I've ever experienced took place in a Long Island bar, where a stewing townie grimaced all the way through my overly emphatic version of Van Halen's "Jump." (I left shortly afterward, so as not to give him the chance to beat me with a garnish tray.)
One explanation for this uptick in karaoke rage is that karaoke bars bring together several socially combustible elements. Fill a room with 30 or so exhibitionists, ply them with alcohol and wireless microphones, and it's only a matter of time before all the forced interaction results in conflict. Indeed, when the first karaoke machines were exported from Japan in the late '70s and early '80s, many communities in Asia and India shunned the devices, fearing they'd attract undesirables. Marketers responded by convincing local educators that karaoke could be used to improve literacy—or, more ingeniously, by pitching American prison wardens on the idea of using karaoke to soothe gang-related animosity.
Not sure how that worked out. But if all it took to instigate violence were excessive booze, egos run amok, and an open forum, every wedding reception and trivia-night contest in America would end in a Farkable brawl. What's interesting about these karaoke attacks is that they sometimes come down to little more than song choice: The attacker either hates the song to the point of physical rage or loves the song with such fervor that he or she will lash out in its defense. So the reasons why karaoke performances sometimes work up to a violent crescendo have less to do with how we interact with one another and more with how we interact with music.
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.