What Brings People Back To Karaoke?

by Kevin Burton

   If you care to observe it, there is a discernable sociology to karaoke gatherings.

   Karaoke is a village where the neighbors dig Patsy Cline and the people across the street are into Nirvana.

   If you go a lot, you are part of it. If you go just occasionally this is the place you are visiting.  It’s not just people getting drunk to an off-key soundtrack. There is often more going on than you suppose.

   I mentioned before on Page 7 that karaoke is the event I have missed most during the stay-at-home order (Hold Your Applause, Karaoke Hits Pause April 26).

   Your karaoke haunt is the place where everybody knows your name and your vocal repertoire. It’s “Cheers” with a boogie beat.

   “The karaoke bar is a culture unto itself: participatory, eclectic, convivial, habitual and liberating,” is the assessment of four professors at Southeastern Louisiana University.

   They observed one karaoke bar over a two-month period and presented their findings in a paper “Karaoke: Culture With a Two-Drink Minimum” at a 1994 convention for educators in journalism.

   The researchers grouped singers into three categories, those who can sing, those who can’t sing but think they can and those who can’t sing but have fun doing it. All have a place in the village.

   The music is the backdrop, the “tie that binds” the participants, the researchers wrote. But it is the people who form the culture.

   It’s a scenario Barbara Freeman has seen many times. Freeman is a karaoke host who does shows in Wichita for Sound Advice. She has hosted for more than 35 years. That’s a lot of Jim Croce songs!

    She got her start by being one of the singers.

   “A group of my singer friends would go to The Fireside on Thursday nights and do karaoke,” she said. “It was the first time a singer could go out and sing without being in a band.”

   “I think it was the third or fourth week, Melissa Robinson, who was the karaoke host, asked me if I would be interested in hosting. Of course I said yes and the rest is history.”

   So what has kept her coming back all these years? What makes Karaoke so much fun?

   “Watching the singers and audience have fun and engage. Seeing a singer develop over time. Helping build a community,” Freeman said.

   “I like to introduce people to one another. I feel it’s important that people feel comfortable at my show,” she said. That happens much more easily when people don’t feel like strangers.”

   Freeman has seen real friendships grow from karaoke groups, with people becoming Facebook friends, exchanging phone numbers and checking to see that others have made it home safely.

   “It’s a beautiful thing!” she said. 

   Karaoke also seems to be a leveler of sorts. The researchers pointed out that no matter what social status regulars have outside the bar, once they enter into the karaoke society, their status becomes one of importance.

   This sense of community and acceptance explains why singers would return to a bar week after week and sing the same songs. It’s something I have seen firsthand and that the researchers also reported.

   Freeman sums up her role of building community as “bringing life to the kingdom of doing.”  That is a line from the 1977 song “Fantasy” by Earth Wind and Fire.

   Fantasy of course, plays a role in the appeal of karaoke.

   “For the three to five minutes a singer is up there, they are the star,” Freeman said. “Their dreams come true, if only for a moment or that night.”

   “Suspended reality” is how Philadelphia karaoke host Sara Sherr puts it. She told thecut.com that karaoke is a space to disconnect from the news. Her comments were made in 2018 but are even more appropriate today.

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