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The Karaoke Effect
Whose Infotainment Is It Anyway?

No, I Asked You First

Two questions glare at each other across a presumed 'great cultural divide,' neither wanting to leave before the other goes home:

Is 'Art' a Western concept? Is Karaoke an Asian phenomenon?

And pinioned between the two, with stiff necks from glancing back and forth East and West, all those who feel some need to ground Japanese culture on one continent or another.

The queries are serious and more subtle than they first appear (the former was both the theme and the title of a major international contemporary art exhibition/symposium in New Zealand this past summer), and to a surprising degree the two are interrelated. The responses people give--not to suppose any 'answers'--are especially revealing of where they stand on the definitively post-colonial pursuit of Asian identity. The asking itself also has megabiz to say about issues of 'intellectual property' and 'artistic originality' in Asia today. The two questions should probably sing a duet before the night is over.

But Is 'Art' It?

Creativity springs eternal, whatever the culture. The creative urge to expression and innovation playing off the conservative hold on order and tradition is virtually synonymous with 'culture.' It is impossible to imagine a human society anywhere that did not paint or sing. And yet, until well into the 19th century, no Asian culture seems to have needed a word for 'art.' At least not in the Western sense, at once comprehensive of diverse forms of expression and exaltive of a 'higher' beauty, often the work of known individuals. Typically such notions only came to be applied locally through the educational institutions of Western colonial powers. Translated equivalents appeared around roughly the same time (perhaps as late as William Morris in some English colonies such as British Malaya and Burma). The Sino-ideographic compound 'beauty + skill' or 'talent + skill' has since acquired the broadest currency across continental Asia; other cultures in the Indic sphere coined words for 'art' with different nuances from Pali or Sanskrit, such as 'fresh + wisdom' many minority cultures still have no word for 'art.' More to the point, the idea of 'art' as an individualised and intellectualised pursuit remains essentially foreign. Except in those modernised = Westernised countries, where there is some emulation of Western (modern) art practice. The 'gallery ghetto' of Asian capitals remains the exclusive domain of the would-be Westerner; the visitor-buyers are mostly diplomats, expat businessmen, and tourists. Each province of China has its own Cezanne of Guelin, an Indonesian De Kooning does shadow puppets in oils. The 'theme' of artworks may reflect 'local colour,' but the conceptual framework of what they are for is peculiarly without texture-- as only a concept can be--and out of place. Certainly there is no urgency or unqualified belief that art can change anything. These 'chips' of collectible commentary or personal exploration just don't seem to fit into the greater 'motherboard' of society, despite incredibly rich traceries of ornamentation to the native circuitry. The 'lone artist' is by-passed. One gets the distinct feeling in most of Asia that if as of tomorrow there were to be no 'art,' no one would miss it in the least.


By contrast, the popularity of karaoke throughout Asia can only be described as phenomenal. The numbers speak for themselves: the market penetration in Asian countries outstrips anything in the West by several hundred fold, both in units sold (hardware and software) and in frequency of venue-visits. Here in Japan, where most karaoke technologies developed- the name karaoke 'empty + orchestra' first appearing on a Clarion tape-soundbox in 1976--it is a multi-trillion yen pillar of entertainment, not to mention of the electronics, music and video cable TV industries. By 1983, an estimated 10% of Japanese households owned some form of mike-and-player amp system expressly designed for reverb singing; as of 1994, as much as 35% of Japan's urban adult population frequented an upwards of 100 thousand commercial premises equipped for karaoke on a weekly basis (or more)

South Koreans, who hardly even need any excuse to break into song, have over 30 thousand noleban 'karaoke rooms' and 13 thousand karaoke bars to choose from

In China, often touted as the "biggest single market in the world," low per capita income has proved no deterrent to the ka-la-OK boom. At an average 6000 yen, a night out singing may cost the equivalent of a factory worker's annual wages, yet we find an exploding demand for laserdiscs in Mandarin, Cantonese, Fukienese and other dialects--often double subtitled. In Hong Kong and Singapore, where the karaoke club or restaurant with 'karaoke request' booths predominates, the overall figure comes to some 60 thousand venues. Scan over to the B-side, however, and there are only a reported 30 thousand karaoke equipped venues on the entire North American continent. And 10 thousand in the whole of Europe. Even with the appropriate repertories of football songs and MTV classics available on disc, the 'microphone thing' just doesn't seem to be happening. (Although admittedly, Southern Europeans show more natural flair for festive shows of peer-group singing) .

Yes, but the Brits love it, say the karaoke manufacturers and distributors. US pop music, the very "drumbeat of globalisation," has such karaoke potential (some Americans even bend over backwards to attribute karaoke to the origins of their early 60s television, when viewers followed bouncing ball on-screen to 'Sing-Along With Mitch'). They foresee a 'major boom to come' in the West, drawing parallels to the slow initial spread of television into Asia. The comparison is spurious: Asia was a much poorer place back in the post-War years, with nothing like the purchasing power (despite recessionary cramps) of Western countries today

Clearly there is some deep-seated unacceptance or even resistance to karaoke. Even when the tunes are familiar with lyrics provided in their own languages, the karaoke experience remains ultimately foreign to most Westerners. It must be asked--Why Johnny won't mike.

The Heart of Karaokracy

In his Walkman Effect (1981), Shuhei Hosokawa describes a critical ambivalence that sold the 'Walkman experience.' While by no means the first portable music device, it appealed as a self-contained unit--strictly a 'gadget'--to a semi permeable screen between oneself and the city, thereby reinforcing a sense of independence. Quintessentially urban, it existed to obliviate the city, to background one's urban surroundings into soundscape. Shown pushing in and out of models' garments, as if to slip into any body orifice, it was yet isolating and asexual.

The 'Karaoke Effect', if anything, calls up a mirror image. Despite the sophistication of the technologies involved, karaoke is decidedly not 'futuristic.' It is rural, a re-enactment of the village festival (though sometimes taking it My Way toward a more 'globalised village.') It is a fixed and inclusive environment for social grounding and bonding--replete with sexual role playing. Choice is always sublimated to others' expectations, and group behaviour is coersively, if jovially, reinforced; 'free' participation is mandatory. It is an affirmation of the 'closed circle.' An Asian-model non-meritocracy, karaoke goers know they will be accepted, talent or not, as long as they sing along and clap when appropriate. And of course, it can be good fun and great for the ego, too. For team players who 'mellow out' in womblike interdependency, that is. Ah, togetherness...

To those raised on a liberal diet of individual expression, such as culminates on one level in the 'anything-goes' incomprehensibilities of the contemporary art scene, this sounds more like work than relaxation. The art of cajoling and pampering personalities, of juggling others' quirks and fancies at close quarters is one interactive performance they'd just as soon pass up. Particularly not post-nuclear-family generation Americans, who conventionally pride themselves on their non-conventionality, who assert 'openness' as corollary to the 'right' to sing your own song. Though it is arguable that without a bro' in the booth, you don't get your fifteen minutes of fame at the mike. Which does suggest why, conversely, among Western countries, those Southern European societies with stronger Catholic family values may take more easily to karaoke baptism. If only there were more perceived commercial gain, the real non-Asian karaoke booms might well be in Latin America and Africa. India is already dubland.

The Illusive Pan-Asian Star

In a world increasingly sold on hybrid cross-border packages of infotainment, it is not at all clear who is calling the tunes. The signals travel by so many channels, no one can track them. Jang-hi's copy is Malee's original. Language is mastered out, melody is sampled, and after a brief name-marketing lead, the singer is anyone. On the macro level, this is real 'anything goes.' The all-important niche is as time-based as geographical. The question now becomes where--and when--is all Asia? Is it one place, one moment? Can decades-wide technological gaps be leapfrogged? Are we one big sing-along family? Has Japan Inc's time come (again)?

At a time when many of Japan's business and political leaders are 'homing in on Asia'--in pursuit of long lost neo-nihonjinron "roots" as well as Asia's highest-growth economies- karaoke with its overtones of group harmony and non-Western values would seem to provide the perfect soundtrack for a latter-day Co-Prosperity Pan-Asianism. Time is ripe for the Pan Asian star to appear on the horizon. So where are the Beatles of Bandung?

With all due apologies to Chage and Aska and their numerous Asia Tours over the last decade, the great Asian Pop Star(s) will not be Japanese. In many parts of Southeast Asia, especially the post-Socialist sphere where the overseas Chinese business community is making enormous inroads and is seen to be a voraciously successful "new upper class," karaoke tends to be regarded as a Chinese rather than Japanese import. In Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma), 'karaoke restaurant-clubs' and 'karaoke bars' have been associated with an influx of 'Chinese' capital--little distinction is made between huaqiao from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Malaysia, and huaren from the mainland PRC- and the clientele is largely the elite community with Chinese connexions. Karaoke videotapes may be locally produced, but laserdiscs are invariably Singaporean (the player hardwares typically bears Japanese or Korean labels). Mandarin karaoke is a constant 'companion' on long-distance buses and trains, though few passengers can follow the on-screen lyrics

Although certain streets in more cosmopolitan places like Bangkok were introduced early on to the Japanese image of karaoke hostess clubs (the exclusive "executive ghetto" of Japanese junior managers), to the vast unpriviledged majority in these Southeast Asian countries, karaoke simply signifies a 'stage show' with bouncy girls who sing to a master tape (closer to the original 'empty + orchestra' usage) and who are rewarded with garlands of banknotes from appreciative members of the audience. Not incidentally, karaoke is popularly associated with prostitution. The turnover of new tapes is not nearly so quick, especially away from the major trade centres; some hit songs stay on the karaoke charts for six months to a year, and by then the memorised Chinese sounds near perfect, syllable for syllable.

The East is Rouge

Over the last two years, the torch-ballad "Rouge" (1986) by moody songstress Miyuki Nakajima has become something of a pop anthem across much of Asia, though not in its original form. The ten-year delay is curious, explainable in part through a timely convergence of improved communications, greater purchasing power and weakening ideological constraints. All these factors were lent a charming face in the young Canto-pop pixie Faye Wong (also known in an earlier incarnation as "Shirley") whose "Easily Hurt Woman" (1994) cover of the Nakajima song went instant gold in Hong Kong and Taiwan (and "massive" in mainland China) simultaneously. The music is credited to Nakajima, but Faye Wong sings unrelated lyrics more in the lilting semi-classical style of the late Taiwanese diva Teresa Teng, who was perhaps the closest thing to the Pan-Asia Star we've seen (she recorded in Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Japanese, English and even Indonesian). This much is unremarkable.

Yet in 1995, the same melody resurfaces in Vietnam as a danceable Viet-rap number by Nhu Quynh, as the disco-cha-cha (!) "Mega-Dance" in Cambodia, and as an up-tempo "karaoke show" number by Aye Chan May in Myanmar (who knows what other versions must exist elsewhere?). This song (these songs?) is on everyone's lips in these countries (this Asia?), lights blink and mirrorballs spin to a wide variety of "Rouge" rhythms everywhere. But by this stage, Nakajima's authorship is never acknowledged and very likely unknown. The instrumentation, arrangements and lyric content have changed completely, though the singer always remains a woman--gender is apparently hard-programmed into karaoke. But then again, absolute "originality" is never in question. Except to the absentee royalties collector.

Sing It with Us Now

So here we are, back at the 'great cultural divide.' A face-off between the beleaguered champions of the lone original 'art concept' and the ever-multiplying extended families of the 'creative context.' There is no question whatsoever that 'copyright' is of Western origin, nor is 'copyright infringement' by any means an exclusively Asian problem. (Some writers, such as William Pensinger in his magnum opus The Moon of Hoa Binh (1994), go so far as to postulate--albeit wishfully--that the Asian group-mind is sees itself as informed from 'higher' and 'elsewhere;' a genius of step-down transmission, not genesis--which says nothing about 'possession' or 'territorial imperative' here below.) The real issue is the 'universal' applicability of motions of 'intellectual property.' Or rather the wisdom of trying to legislate and enforce stringent economic controls on information flow. Infotainment properly stakes its monetary claims on volume of consumption, on amplitude as monitored by faster-than-debugging sub-carrier signal; there will always be an increment of crosstalk into other frequencies. Especially in cultures where situational 'social containment' is preferred to legalistic confrontation. Harmony within the karaoke plurality more than the single published score

Perhaps as techno-globalisation progresses, the distinction between recording (recoding?) studio and karaoke lounge will echo away. For our next round, can we log in Francis Fukuyama's version of Elvis Costello's 'Trust?' (Alfred BIRNBAUM, writer)

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