Paper cite:

   Lamb, C., Burns, J. E., Scaffidi, J., & Murdock, J. (October, 1994). Karaoke: Research with a two drink minimum.
Paper presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication annual convention, Washington DC.

© Copyright 1994 Lamb, C., Burns, J. E., Scaffidi, J., & Murdock, J.




      It is shortly after nine o'clock on a Saturday night. A burly, bearded man steps up to the microphone and begins singing the Hank Williams song, "Family Tradition." After the man sings the line, "Hank, why do you drink?" the audience responds: "To get drunk!" When he sings: "Hank, why do you smoke?" the crowd sings: "To get high!" Later, the exchange is repeated verbatim. When the song is over, the crowd applauds. The man walks away from the microphone and sits down at a table with his friends. Is he a professional singer? Hardly. Is it amateur night at a country bar? Not quite. It is karaoke night.

      The karaoke bar is a culture unto itself: participatory, eclectic, convivial, habitual, and liberating. There is singing, drinking, camaraderie, and wish-fulfillment. Karaoke gives everyone a chance to be the star, if only for a night, if only for one song. Karaoke, which involves singing to a soundtrack in front of a live audience, has become a part of the culture of American bars in the 1990s, in much the same way as the "Urban Cowboy" phenomenon did in the 1980s, and thus is worthy of research.

      During the "Urban Cowboy" phenomenon, which was inspired by the movie of the same name, people dressed in western clothing and went to popular bars or night spots to ride mechanical bulls and dance the two-step. In doing so, these bars or night spots were transformed into distinct cultures with their own set of routines, their own roles, and their own rhetoric.

      Janice Rushing described the rhetoric of the "Urban Cowboy" phenomenon as "participatory rhetoric": the audience was not separate from the source or message. Playing the part of a cowboy, she said, was a way for adults to escape and have a good time. Devotees became a part of the entertainment by playing a part in the entertainment. People who go to karaoke bars do so for much the same reason. They not only want to be entertained, they want to be part of the entertainment.

History of Karaoke

      Karaoke, a Japanese term meaning "empty orchestra, is an import from Japan. In that country, karaoke bars are for both pleasure and business. Taking a client to a bar and singing for them can mean the difference between getting a contract or not; through karaoke you sing for your supper, literally. This particular nuance did not accompany karaoke from Japan. When you sing karaoke in a bar in the United States, you generally have nothing to lose but your inhibitions. You may be heckled, but this is not likely to cost you in terms of your vocation.

      In the United States, karaoke is used as a drawing card for bars and restaurants who rarely charge participants to sing, but make their money off food and drinks, however, the phenomenon has transcended bars. There are karaoke music awards in San Francisco. Denver has a karaoke league and in Los Angeles, listeners to a radio station can sing over the air. Karaoke machines also are rented for birthday parties, weddings, and fund-raisers. Theme parks, such as Disneyland to Opryland, offer customers a chance to step inside a booth, sing along with the tracks to their favorite song, and take home a cassette. Time magazine once referred to "My Way" as a favorite for karaoke enthusiasts, especially drunken ones.

      Why has karaoke become so popular? The literature offers several reasons. One is that it fulfills a person's fantasy of being a rock star. One karaoke disc jockey has said that everyone sings in their car, in the shower, or maybe "The National Anthem" at a ball game, but karaoke gives them the chance to sing in front of an audience. For others, karaoke has corporeal benefits. A Detroit woman said that singing karaoke on a regular basis has improved her physical health. Karaoke also may be part of larger sociological or anthropological phenomenon. One scholar, Don Cusic, has linked karaoke to the folk or oral tradition, which kept songs alive for generations. The folk tradition persisted because, as songs were learned, they were passed on from one person to another as culture, history, and entertainment. People sang to themselves, while they worked, or at home with friends and family members. Behind this ritual, Cusic said, was the need to pass on an oral history and simply the desire to sing.

      Does America continue to sing as it once did? Probably not. There are five reasons to support the passing of folk singing, or oral tradition: (1) We are an urban nation, crowded into cities where singing violates someone else's "space"; (2) We are inundated by the media, such as blaring radios and piped-in music; (3) Audiences at concerts, for instance, are conditioned to be passive while the chosen few sing; (4) Our lives are often lived in quiet desperation, where we often feel spiritually suffocated, and people who feel this way don't sing; and (5) We have no family models to teach us songs, sing with us, or show us the role that singing should play in our lives.

      Cusic, however, observed that karaoke has rejuvenated this oral tradition. Folklorists now have a new field of study: Which songs are the most "folk," or most popular, and why? People know the words and melody of their favorite songs, and sing them for others at a karaoke bar. This is folk singing and proof that the folk tradition is again alive and well in today's technological culture.

      Anything that plays as heavily on the sensibilities of so many people as karaoke is worthy of sociological attention. This paper will examine karaoke as culture -- or put another way, the sociology of karaoke. What is the culture of karaoke and what makes it distinctive? What roles do the disc jockey, the songs, the singers, and the audience play in this culture? What routines, roles, and relationships define it, and how is the culture maintained?

Participant observation

      The method of analysis for this study was participant observation. Participant observation dates back to turn-of-the-century anthropology. These studies were completed by observers sharing the daily activities with the people under study. Researchers attempted to become a part of a culture in order to study it from an emic view.

      This observation of daily life as a participant yields fundamental data for building a deeper understanding of the basic facets of that one culture's existence.

      There are distinct advantages to participant observation. Primarily, the data are gleaned from actual behavior and not reports of behavior. Observing actual behavior eliminates the chances of the inaccuracies in subjects self-reporting. Also, this methodology allows for data collection, not otherwise possible. An unobtrusive, undisturbed sequence of natural events rich in data about everyday, social events.

      In order to complete a successful participant observation study, a researcher must abandon the traditional quest for sustainable generalizations. Instead the systematic observation must be the focus. The unilateral control traditionally held by the researcher is non-existent when conducting participant observation. However, the participant observation method is not for all purposes as it requires a heavy commitment of time and a strong familiarity with the social setting. It also requires entry into various roles in a solid setting.

      Quite simply, no entry equals no research.

      Entry was easy for this study. Karaoke, for purposes here, occurred in a public setting, i.e., a bar. The four researchers in the study sat at a table and observed in a nonintrusive way. Data were collected over a period of two months. The researchers coded the following subject matter: the songs that were selected; the genre of the song; a description of the singers; the reactions of audience members; and the role of the disc jockey. These observations were then compared in order to identify those routines, roles, and relationships that defined the karaoke bar as culture.

      One karaoke bar is likely to share certain qualities or characteristics with another: a disc jockey, or emcee; participants, i.e., singers; a responsive audience; and a common technology. This includes a karaoke machine that provides a song's lyrics to the singer; a microphone or microphones; speakers; amplifier; laser disc player; and a television screen or screens where the audience can watch a video and follow the lyrics of the song.

      Contrarily, the culture of a karaoke bar is likely to vary from one to another -- as the culture of one bar or restaurant is likely to vary from the culture of another. For instance, the culture of what is strictly speaking a karaoke bar, where patrons go for the express purpose of singing and hearing others sing, will vary from karaoke inside a restaurant, where eating and conversing have a high priority, or from at a nightclub, where patrons are split between those who want to sing and those who want to watch television, play darts, shoot pool, or dance.

      At, what is strictly speaking, a karaoke bar, karaoke is the tie that binds the participants. It is not merely a diversion. The karaoke explains why participants have come to this particular bar and why they did so the week before, and why they will do it again the next week. For many, a night at a karaoke bar is a part of their routine. There is a stronger sense of culture or community at such an establishment. Relationships are more clearly defined and maintained. For this reason, we sought such an establishment for this study.

The Karaoke Bar as Culture

      The setting for this study was a relatively small bar inside a bowling alley in a small Midwestern city. The bar has karaoke from 9 p.m. until closing, or 2 a.m., every Friday and Saturday and one additional week night, which alternates from one week to another. Patrons generally come to sing or watch others sing. They are both passive and active, but, for the most part, they all made a conscious choice be a part of entertainment. Once someone entered the bar, he would stay for an hour, at least, however, it was not uncommon for regulars to spend several hours a night, Friday and Saturday, week after week. Onlookers often peered into the bar out of curiosity, but they rarely went beyond the entrance. There are invisible boundaries. The culture is defined not just in terms of relationships and routines, but also in terms of a physical dynamic. There usually are 12 or 13 tables in the bar. All are relatively close to one another, each facing the front of the room. This contributes to the sense of involvement and intimacy of this particular culture.

      By 9 o'clock, someone, usually the disc jockey, has left the following items on each table: a pencil; a piece of paper where patrons can request the song they want to sing; and a songbook, which includes hundreds of titles from different decades (1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s) and different categories of music (country, Broadway, nursery rhymes, and Christmas songs).

      The disc jockey performs the role of emcee. At the start of evening, he explains to the crowd, "This is like a game." And then, like a game show host, he outlines the ground rules: "Look through the songbook, when you find a song you want to sing, fill out a request, and bring it up to me. I'll do the rest."

      The DJ is in charge of the society. He controls the ebb and flow of the evening. If there is a lull, he may make a general plea, such as, "Don't be bashful. Get your song up here." Or he may sing a song or two himself. He also is apt to accompany a nervous neophyte or join a regular for a duet. He also maintains a sense of continuity from one song to another. Songs of one genre are usually played with songs of the same genre. For instance, you will not likely hear Bachman Turner Overdrive before or after Tanya Tucker; instead, to bridge the transition, you may hear Travis Tritt or some other country rock artist. There are no abrupt music changes.

      This karaoke bar reflected a strong preference for country music. Reasons for this may be: country is popular and more accessible than rock and other genres of music and, in the case of this particular karaoke bar, reflects the community at large. The number-one radio station in town has a country format.

      The regular disc jockey is the unpaid, ex officio head of the community. He fosters a sense of community and contributes to the continuity of the ritual. He learns the names of the regulars and their favorite songs. When the regular disc jockey was not there one evening, a substitute filled in. This affected the dynamic of the room, in much the same way a classroom is affected when a substitute teacher fills in. The night was not as upbeat.

      There is a ritual to who sits where, who sings what, and how regulars react to the music and one another. This, in short, is what defines the culture of the karaoke bar.

      Tables are subcultures within the culture itself. Groups number from two or three to ten or twelve. Regulars arrive early, sit at the same table they sat the week before, and they will sing many, if not all, the same songs they sang the week before and the week before that, even if the songs already have been sung that evening. This is their community and they sometimes react to non-regulars with a furtive sense of suspicion, as if to say, "This is our place and you have invaded it." This attitude is especially prevalent during the first hour or two. The regulars seem to feel that this is their time. Non-regulars are received into the community, but only on certain terms. Patrons who become obnoxious or otherwise act inappropriately are asked to behave or leave.

      The nightly ritual includes the regulars and their favorite songs. For instance, a short, balding man will sing "Amarillo By Morning." Then at some point, he will sing "Boot Scootin' Boogie" with a friend. A heavyset, middle-aged woman will sing, "Daddy's Hands." Another woman will sing "Coal Miner's Daughter." And a silver-haired man, who sits alone at the bar, will sing, "Hello Darlin' " by Conway Twitty. This set of songs is sung every karaoke night.

      There is no dance floor to be speak of, yet some dancing occurs. Couples slow-dance in the back of the room to certain songs such as Garth Brooks' "The Dance." When the two regulars sing "Boot Scootin' Boogie,' " a line-dance is performed by three middle-aged women, who do not otherwise associate with the men. It is part of an unspoken ritual. The women sometimes request the song, not so they can sing to it, but so they can dance to it.

      Certain songs elicit specific responses week after week. When "Family Tradition" is sung, the crowd answers the singer's question: "Why do you drink?" and "Why do you smoke?" with "To get drunk" and "To get high," respectively. Travis Tritt's "Here's a Quarter" prompts people to toss quarters on the ground in front of the singer. When "Rockin' Robin" is sung, audience members join in on the chorus singing "tweet tweet."

      Despite the sense of continuity and routinization, each karaoke night is different from the one before it, or the one after it. The distinctiveness of the karaoke culture depends, in part, on the spontaneity of the audience.

      Crowd members frequently clap or sing along with the music. Others will interject "Yee aws!" during a twangy country song such as "Rocky Top." When one singer sang "That's What Friends Are For," groups at several tables held hands with one another, swayed back and forth to the music, and sang along. When "Freebird" was sung, a crowd member stood, flicked his lighter, and waved it back and forth to music. These types of rituals are also performed in mock tribute for singers, who perform campy renditions of such lounge classics as "Mack the Knife" or "My Way."

      Singers fall into three categories: Those who can sing; those who cannot sing but think they can; and those who cannot sing but have fun doing it. These categories appeared to be mutually exclusive and exhaustive each night data were gathered.

      Those who can sing well are rewarded with a standing ovation, loud applause, and personal praise. These singers enjoy status within the culture. In the hierarchy of karaoke society, the disc jockey occupies the top rung, followed by the regulars, the best singers, and then the rest of the participants.

      Regulars respond more favorably to non-regulars who sing country songs. They respond less favorably to non-regulars who choose to sing rock-and-roll, and least favorably to non-regulars who sing rock-and-roll poorly. While loud heckling is rare, it is not uncommon to hear people at tables exchange derisive comments about those singers who take themselves too seriously.

      However, if you sing poorly but do not take yourself too seriously, the humor is appreciated, and often reciprocated. Camp is rewarded with camp. When two college-aged men sang the corny John Travolta and Olivia-Newton-John song, "Summer Lovin,' " they received a standing ovation, mock bowing, and cries of "We are not worthy! We are not worthy!" This also was the reaction to three men who sang the Tammy Wynette classic, "Stand By Your Man."

      With the exception of the accomplished singers and some of those who camp it up, most of the singers are concerned more with keeping up with the lyrics on the karaoke machine than with their stage presence. Participants make little eye contact with their audience. Instead, their eyes are on the song's lyrics that are displayed on a screen in front of them. Their performance is of the utmost importance. Playing to the crowd is not as important.

The Karaoke Videos

      Each song is accompanied by a video, which rarely has any direct relevance to the music's lyrics. The music videos are relatively cheap in quality, and appear to be turned out quickly.

      Videos are often sexually oriented -- especially country music videos, which tend to include scantily dressed women and sensual shots of men touching women and vice versa, frequently in bed. Rock videos for songs by Aerosmith or Bachman Turner Overdrive by comparison, tend to be more action-oriented: cars, motorcycles, skateboarding, etc. There does not seem to be rhyme or reason for videos of other genres. The video for "My Way," for instance, inexplicably focuses on a day in the life of mime, hardly the image one gets from listening to Old Blue Eyes.

      As the evening progresses, the atmosphere becomes less structured due in part, no doubt, to the cumulative effects of several drinks but also to the fact that patrons have grown more comfortable and inhibitions have been shed. Non-regulars sing more often, the songs become less predictable, and the singers hit their notes less often. The culture, likewise, becomes more participatory. Strangers will ask other strangers to join them for a song, much as a stranger will ask another to dance at a nightclub.

      As the evening winds down, the participants of the karaoke culture wave good-bye to one another even though they may have never been introduced. Knowing another's name isn't important. The fact that these two people shared time together in a micro-culture for an evening is. When the bar's lights come on, karaoke is over for the night, and the members of that evening's society split up and return to the society of their small Midwestern town. But they will all be friends again in a few days when the karaoke bar again opens for business.


      A karaoke bar differs from other bars where a man may go by himself and drink out of despair. It differs from bars where a few friends may go to socialize or watch a game on television. The culture of karaoke is more convivial, upbeat, and nurturing. It is also participatory. A person would have found it difficult in our karaoke bar to simply sit and be left alone. Persons entering into the society are expected to participate. If not to sing, to at least acknowledge those who do sing.

      For the patrons at a karaoke bar, a sense of culture is maintained by a set of routines, roles, and relationships. A sort of symbolic interactionism without speech. Persons who entered the bar understood what was expected of them and what their boundaries of behavior were by watching and mimicking those who already seemed comfortable in the culture.

      A karaoke bar is also set aside from other bars and establishments due to the empowerment it provides its patrons. This, we believe, is the underlying reason karaoke bars have become so popular in American culture.

      No matter what social status regulars have outside of the bar, once they enter into the karaoke society, their status becomes one of importance. Non regulars can also achieve that feeling of empowerment simply be doing what they are expected to do, sing.

      In today's society, the power over what music is deemed important, thus getting recorded, lies in the hands of music companies. In a karaoke bar, patrons do not have to listen to pop artists sing their songs the way the artist wants to sing it. The karaoke patron is empowered to sing the melody any way he or she sees fit. The singer can change the words, change the melody, or simply put a bit of a different spin on a song's interpretation. The singer is empowered with the ability to do what he or she feels is necessary.

      This rite of reversal, moving the power from the record company's choices to the patron's choices, obviously has a strong appeal. Karaoke has found a solid place in American culture. Ten years from now karaoke bars may be just a dot on the American history time-line that receives a small note in an academic paper much the same way the Urban Cowboy craze of the 1980s did in this paper. But right now karaoke is popular and is deserving of researcher's time and efforts.

      This paper only offers a cursory look into what karaoke is to one bar. The findings, as with any research project, are suspect to different interpretations but will hopefully spawn more investigations into other small karaoke cultures.



     Janice Hocker Rushing, "The Rhetoric of the American Western Myth," Communication Monographs 50 (March 1983), 31.
     Don Cusic, "Karaoke: High Tech and the Folk Tradition," Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin 55 (1991), 54. CHECK THIS
     Heidi Siegman, "Dimples: Your Chance to be a Karaoke Star," Los Angeles Times, 16 December 1993, A6.
     Cusic, 53.
     J.D. Reed, "Song of Myself on Tape," Time 15 July 1985, p. 74
     Chris Lamb, "Karaoke Craze Spreads from Bars to Cars," Daytona Beach News-Journal 1 May, 1993, D1.
     Catherine Kaza, "Karaoke Carries Healing Magic," Detroit News, 2 December, 1992, p. 7.
     Cusic, 51.
     Ibid, p. 52.
     Ibid, p. 53.
     Ibid, p. 54.
     Severyn Ten Haut Bruyn, The Human Perspective in Sociology: The Methodology of Participant Observation (Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1966), 8.
     John Johnson, Doing Field Research (Free Press: New York, 1975), 82.
     Jurgen Friedrichs and Hants Farnborough, Participant Observation: Theory and Practice (Lexington Books: Lexington, Mass., 1975) ..... NEED THIS ...
     Eugene Webb, Donald Campbell, Richard Schwartz, and Lee Sechrest, Unobtrusive Measures in the Social Science (Rand McNally: Chicago, 1966), 10.
     William Foote Whyte, Learning from the Field: A Guide from Experience (Sage: Beverely Hills, 1984), 28-29.
     Webb et al., 3.
     Johnson, 82.


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