Lutheran Karaoke

karaoke |ˌkarēˈōkē| noun
a form of entertainment, offered typically by bars and clubs, in which people take turns singing popular songs into a microphone over prerecorded backing tracks.
ORIGIN 1970s: from Japanese, literally ‘empty orchestra.’

To add to the general festivities at year’s end, Prof. Yang sent his minions off on a Friday afternoon, at his expense, but in his absence, to “Party World”, a downtown Hangzhou establishment, which lives up to its name by providing private party rooms, with free access to a very well laid buffet (no smoking or alcohol, please), including excellent espresso. Only God and the proprietor know how many such rooms — dozens, at least, maybe a hundred, and all seemed bursting with non-alcoholic party-makers.

But unlimited food and a space you don’t have to clean up afterwards, is not sufficient catalysis for a Chinese party; the true attractions here are a large display screen, two microphones on long cables, and a computer console for selecting among countless thousands of karaoke titles. The songs are not with ’empty orchestra’, but void of solo voice, which the party-goers themselves fill in, prompted by color-coding each successive word of the song lyrics, in synchrony with the music. That’s it: a high-tech delivery system for an ancient group entertainment, singing.

Of course, I participated, and had fun doing so. Not with the Chinese songs, though it occurred to me that the slow rhythms, dumbed-down vocabulary and repetitive nature of some songs might make a great Chinese language learning tool. But occasionally an English language song was conjured up, and the microphone pushed in my direction, as if I were the only one there who could read/sing English. This was doubtless done as a sort of rite of initiation, to earn my credits as a bona-fide karaoke singer. My fellow karaokites seemed satisfied with my efforts, and politely refrained from noting that my English diction is better than my sense of pitch or rhythm.

One such moment with me as star, was to render the 1970’s Eagles song, “Hotel California”, with a slightly forlorn ’70s tune and lyrics which were only vaguely familiar to me. As the words unfolded, it seemed clearly to be an allegory to marijuana intoxication. Or should I say, it seemed hazily so? Maybe I was the only one old enough to pick up on it.

I had lived the first 67 years of my life without going to karaoke halls, and, though I confess to enjoying this party, I probably could bear another 67 years without repeating the event. The very neutrality of my reaction, however, compared to the avidity of my Chinese friends, convinced me that some profound difference between the Eastern and Western soul must lie at the root of the Chinese romance with karaoke.

Vicariousness seems to be the key attribute of karaoke singing. But gaze as I will into the Chinese soul, I don’t find evidence of a predilection for vicariousness: nothing vicarious about Chinese food, nor about their drinking customs, nor about their driving habits, nor in their entrepreneurial spirit. No vicars in China, unless you count the local Party secretary.

But perhaps I’m just singing the wrong tune. After all, what is that annual Handel-Messiah sing-along if not just Lutheran karaoke?

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