KARAOKE: CULTURE WITH A TWO DRINK MINIMUM
It is shortly after nine o'clock on a Saturday night. A burly,
man steps up to the microphone and begins singing the Hank
song, "Family Tradition." After the man sings the line, "Hank,
you drink?" the audience responds: "To get drunk!" When he sings:
"Hank, why do you smoke?" the crowd sings: "To get high!" Later,
exchange is repeated verbatim. When the song is over, the crowd
applauds. The man walks away from the microphone and sits down at
table with his friends. Is he a professional singer? Hardly. Is
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
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
audience, has become a part of the culture of American bars in
1990s, in much the same way as the "Urban Cowboy" phenomenon did
the 1980s, and thus is worthy of research.
During the "Urban Cowboy" phenomenon, which was inspired by
movie of the same name, people dressed in western clothing and
popular bars or night spots to ride mechanical bulls and dance
two-step. In doing so, these bars or night spots were
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
from the source or message. Playing the part of a cowboy, she
was a way for adults to escape and have a good time. Devotees
a part of the entertainment by playing a part in the
People who go to karaoke bars do so for much the same reason.
only want to be entertained, they want to be part of the
History of Karaoke
Karaoke, a Japanese term meaning "empty orchestra, is an
from Japan. In that country, karaoke bars are for both pleasure
business. Taking a client to a bar and singing for them can
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
United States, you generally have nothing to lose but your
inhibitions. You may be heckled, but this is not likely to cost
terms of your vocation.
In the United States, karaoke is used as a drawing card for
and restaurants who rarely charge participants to sing, but make
money off food and drinks, however, the phenomenon has
bars. There are karaoke music awards in San Francisco. Denver has
karaoke league and in Los Angeles, listeners to a radio station
sing over the air. Karaoke machines also are rented for
parties, weddings, and fund-raisers. Theme parks, such as
to Opryland, offer customers a chance to step inside a booth,
along with the tracks to their favorite song, and take home a
cassette. Time magazine once referred to "My Way" as a favorite
karaoke enthusiasts, especially drunken ones.
Why has karaoke become so popular? The literature offers
reasons. One is that it fulfills a person's fantasy of being a
star. One karaoke disc jockey has said that everyone sings in
car, in the shower, or maybe "The National Anthem" at a ball
karaoke gives them the chance to sing in front of an audience.
others, karaoke has corporeal benefits. A Detroit woman said that
singing karaoke on a regular basis has improved her physical
Karaoke also may be part of larger sociological or
phenomenon. One scholar, Don Cusic, has linked karaoke to the
oral tradition, which kept songs alive for generations. The folk
tradition persisted because, as songs were learned, they were
on from one person to another as culture, history, and
People sang to themselves, while they worked, or at home with
and family members. Behind this ritual, Cusic said, was the need
pass on an oral history and simply the desire to sing.
Does America continue to sing as it once did? Probably not.
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
media, such as blaring radios and piped-in music; (3) Audiences
concerts, for instance, are conditioned to be passive while the
few sing; (4) Our lives are often lived in quiet desperation,
often feel spiritually suffocated, and people who feel this way
sing; and (5) We have no family models to teach us songs, sing
us, or show us the role that singing should play in our lives.
Cusic, however, observed that karaoke has rejuvenated this
tradition. Folklorists now have a new field of study: Which songs
the most "folk," or most popular, and why? People know the
and melody of their favorite songs, and sing them for others at a
karaoke bar. This is folk singing and proof that the folk
again alive and well in today's technological culture.
Anything that plays as heavily on the sensibilities of so
people as karaoke is worthy of sociological attention. This paper
examine karaoke as culture -- or put another way, the sociology
karaoke. What is the culture of karaoke and what makes it
What roles do the disc jockey, the songs, the singers, and the
audience play in this culture? What routines, roles, and
define it, and how is the culture maintained?
The method of analysis for this study was participant
observation. Participant observation dates back to
anthropology. These studies were completed by observers sharing
daily activities with the people under study. Researchers
become a part of a culture in order to study it from an emic
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
of behavior. Observing actual behavior eliminates the chances of
inaccuracies in subjects self-reporting. Also, this methodology
for data collection, not otherwise possible. An unobtrusive,
undisturbed sequence of natural events rich in data about
In order to complete a successful participant observation
a researcher must abandon the traditional quest for sustainable
generalizations. Instead the systematic observation must be the
The unilateral control traditionally held by the researcher is
non-existent when conducting participant observation. However,
participant observation method is not for all purposes as it
a heavy commitment of time and a strong familiarity with the
setting. It also requires entry into various roles in a solid
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
study sat at a table and observed in a nonintrusive way. Data
collected over a period of two months. The researchers coded
the following subject matter: the songs that were selected; the
of the song; a description of the singers; the reactions of
members; and the role of the disc jockey. These observations were
compared in order to identify those routines, roles, and
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;
i.e., singers; a responsive audience; and a common technology.
includes a karaoke machine that provides a song's lyrics to the
singer; a microphone or microphones; speakers; amplifier; laser
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
one to another -- as the culture of one bar or restaurant is
vary from the culture of another. For instance, the culture of
strictly speaking a karaoke bar, where patrons go for the express
purpose of singing and hearing others sing, will vary from
inside a restaurant, where eating and conversing have a high
or from at a nightclub, where patrons are split between those who
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
that binds the participants. It is not merely a diversion. The
karaoke explains why participants have come to this particular
and why they did so the week before, and why they will do it
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
establishment. Relationships are more clearly defined and
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
bowling alley in a small Midwestern city. The bar has karaoke
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
passive and active, but, for the most part, they all made a
choice be a part of entertainment. Once someone entered the bar,
would stay for an hour, at least, however, it was not uncommon
regulars to spend several hours a night, Friday and Saturday,
after week. Onlookers often peered into the bar out of curiosity,
they rarely went beyond the entrance. There are invisible
The culture is defined not just in terms of relationships and
routines, but also in terms of a physical dynamic. There usually
12 or 13 tables in the bar. All are relatively close to one
another, each facing the front of the room. This contributes to
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,
includes hundreds of titles from different decades (1950s, 1960s,
1970s, 1980s, and 1990s) and different categories of music
Broadway, nursery rhymes, and Christmas songs).
The disc jockey performs the role of emcee. At the start of
he explains to the crowd, "This is like a game." And then, like a
show host, he outlines the ground rules: "Look through the
when you find a song you want to sing, fill out a request, and
it up to me. I'll do the rest."
The DJ is in charge of the society. He controls the ebb and
of the evening. If there is a lull, he may make a general plea,
as, "Don't be bashful. Get your song up here." Or he may sing a
or two himself. He also is apt to accompany a nervous neophyte or
a regular for a duet. He also maintains a sense of continuity
song to another. Songs of one genre are usually played with songs
the same genre. For instance, you will not likely hear Bachman
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
Reasons for this may be: country is popular and more accessible
rock and other genres of music and, in the case of this
karaoke bar, reflects the community at large. The number-one
station in town has a country format.
The regular disc jockey is the unpaid, ex officio head of
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
evening, a substitute filled in. This affected the dynamic of the
room, in much the same way a classroom is affected when a
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
defines the culture of the karaoke bar.
Tables are subcultures within the culture itself. Groups
from two or three to ten or twelve. Regulars arrive early, sit at
same table they sat the week before, and they will sing many, if
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
their community and they sometimes react to non-regulars with a
furtive sense of suspicion, as if to say, "This is our place and
have invaded it." This attitude is especially prevalent during
first hour or two. The regulars seem to feel that this is their
Non-regulars are received into the community, but only on certain
terms. Patrons who become obnoxious or otherwise act
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"
a friend. A heavyset, middle-aged woman will sing, "Daddy's
Another woman will sing "Coal Miner's Daughter." And a
man, who sits alone at the bar, will sing, "Hello Darlin' " by
Twitty. This set of songs is sung every karaoke night.
There is no dance floor to be speak of, yet some dancing
Couples slow-dance in the back of the room to certain songs such
Garth Brooks' "The Dance." When the two regulars sing "Boot
Boogie,' " a line-dance is performed by three middle-aged women,
do not otherwise associate with the men. It is part of an
ritual. The women sometimes request the song, not so they can
it, but so they can dance to it.
Certain songs elicit specific responses week after week.
"Family Tradition" is sung, the crowd answers the singer's
"Why do you drink?" and "Why do you smoke?" with "To get drunk"
"To get high," respectively. Travis Tritt's "Here's a Quarter"
people to toss quarters on the ground in front of the singer.
"Rockin' Robin" is sung, audience members join in on the chorus
singing "tweet tweet."
Despite the sense of continuity and routinization, each
night is different from the one before it, or the one after it.
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
"Rocky Top." When one singer sang "That's What Friends Are For,"
groups at several tables held hands with one another, swayed back
forth to the music, and sang along. When "Freebird" was sung, a
member stood, flicked his lighter, and waved it back and forth to
music. These types of rituals are also performed in mock tribute
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;
cannot sing but think they can; and those who cannot sing but
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
loud applause, and personal praise. These singers enjoy status
the culture. In the hierarchy of karaoke society, the disc jockey
occupies the top rung, followed by the regulars, the best
then the rest of the participants.
Regulars respond more favorably to non-regulars who sing
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
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
rewarded with camp. When two college-aged men sang the corny John
Travolta and Olivia-Newton-John song, "Summer Lovin,' " they
a standing ovation, mock bowing, and cries of "We are not worthy!
are not worthy!" This also was the reaction to three men who sang
Tammy Wynette classic, "Stand By Your Man."
With the exception of the accomplished singers and some of
who camp it up, most of the singers are concerned more with
with the lyrics on the karaoke machine than with their stage
Participants make little eye contact with their audience.
their eyes are on the song's lyrics that are displayed on a
front of them. Their performance is of the utmost importance.
to the crowd is not as important.
The Karaoke Videos
Each song is accompanied by a video, which rarely has any
relevance to the music's lyrics. The music videos are relatively
in quality, and appear to be turned out quickly.
Videos are often sexually oriented -- especially country
videos, which tend to include scantily dressed women and sensual
shots of men touching women and vice versa, frequently in bed.
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
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
often, the songs become less predictable, and the singers hit
notes less often. The culture, likewise, becomes more
Strangers will ask other strangers to join them for a song, much
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
been introduced. Knowing another's name isn't important. The
that these two people shared time together in a micro-culture for
evening is. When the bar's lights come on, karaoke is over for
night, and the members of that evening's society split up and
to the society of their small Midwestern town. But they will all
friends again in a few days when the karaoke bar again opens for
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
friends may go to socialize or watch a game on television. The
of karaoke is more convivial, upbeat, and nurturing. It is also
participatory. A person would have found it difficult in our
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
symbolic interactionism without speech. Persons who entered the
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.
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
once they enter into the karaoke society, their status becomes
importance. Non regulars can also achieve that feeling of
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.
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.
singer is empowered with the ability to do what he or she feels
This rite of reversal, moving the power from the record
choices to the patron's choices, obviously has a strong appeal.
Karaoke has found a solid place in American culture. Ten years
now karaoke bars may be just a dot on the American history
that receives a small note in an academic paper much the same way
Urban Cowboy craze of the 1980s did in this paper. But right now
karaoke is popular and is deserving of researcher's time and
This paper only offers a cursory look into what karaoke is
bar. The findings, as with any research project, are suspect to
different interpretations but will hopefully spawn more
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.
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.
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,
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.
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