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Shifting Identities: Karaoke and Queer Aesthetics


 

In a talk last Thursday entitled “Karaoke, Queer Aesthetics, Queer Theory,” USC Associate Professor of English, Gender Studies, American Studies, and Ethnicity Karen Tongson argued in favor of defining karaoke as a queer activity. For Tongson, karaoke forces participants to gauge their own “originality, authenticity, and worthiness,” and as such, it is an activity grounded in queer performance aesthetics.

What makes karaoke queer? Imitation. Or rather, the failure to imitate things perfectly. Because so many songs hinge on heterosexual relationships, love stories, and American exceptionalism, those who sing along to them must do so in spite of any personal differences they have with such themes.

Tongson situated her ideas about queer theory and karaoke within karaoke’s complicated history. She contends that our conception of karaoke as giving “the common man a voice” comes from the mythology surrounding Daisuke Inoue, the man credited with inventing the karaoke machine. Indeed, Daisuke intended his early karaoke machine, called the 8 Juke, to be used in working class bars that could not afford more expensive forms of entertainment.

But karaoke’s history is complicated by the fact that Inoue never patented his invention. That honor went to Bernardo del Rosario, who discovered that it was cheaper to create “minus one” tracks (tracks that remove the voice of the signer but keep the instrumentals) and have professional Filipino bands sing along to them, than it was to have actual instrumentals.

Inoue’s 8 Juke eventually superseded del Rosario’s minus one tracks as representing karaoke’s true origin story. Tongson argues that this was because westerner’s liked the idea of an everyman inventor (Inoue) harnessing his individualism to create a popular democratizing technology, rather than the alternative, which would be to admit that karaoke’s development was grounded in professional Filipino copycat singers negatively affected by American colonialism.

It is in the act of repetition and imitation pioneered by Filipino singers that, for Tongson, orients karaoke within queer aesthetics. By surrendering to someone else’s music, participants are forced to go outside themselves.

And if gender is performative in nature, as is argued by Judith Butler, then it becomes easier to understand why karaoke might be conceptualized as “queer-aoke.” As with other queer artforms like drag, performing karaoke requires one to retrace the lines/performances of those who came before, but with a clear goal in mind: to create something new, and to discover something new about yourself.

This talk represented the first Queer-Feminist-Trans Research Cluster (QFT) meeting of the year. Professor Tongson’s forthcoming book, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke In Our Time, will delve deeper into the topic of Karaoke, its complicated history, and its relation to queer theory and queer aesthetics.

 

– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History

 

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018

 

 


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