Last Wednesday I attended a karaoke “Fantasy Draft,” during which Slate editor Dan Kois and fifteen other people at various stations in New York media sang other people’s songs to a roomful of people whose connections to New York media felt distinctly more obscure. (The only person I talked to who wasn’t a direct participant was an Amazon employee.) I mostly went because someone told me to, but also because I found the entire conceit strange.
Karaoke invites participation. It’s the primary feature. Whether in a bar or a private room, you walk into a space, open a book, and develop anxiety. You interrogate your own abilities, forming subconscious indexes of songs you’ve memorized and songs you presume to know. You sing them to various aggrieved ends. On a slightly reconfigured timeline, everyone else experiences this. (Unless one of them is a seasoned “karaoke person”; in that case there is a lot of unusually-earned self-esteem in operation.) You are assimilated into the order of a shared experience. To reduce participation to a select few and invite others to witness it is to shrink the activity itself to interminable spectacle. You watch people perform other people’s songs with grace, incompetence, or irregular fits of adequacy, with no opportunity to identify yourself on the spectrum. People were encouraged to sing once it was over, but the songs available were the same sixteen we had just endured. To try a hand at one would seem to even the most unconscious person there a kind of inelegant upstaging.
The sixteen songs are part of an installation called SCARYOKE!!!, named after a method of karaoke Kois encountered in Portland, where participants wouldn’t know the song they were singing until they found themselves onstage. To visualize the concept, the stage at apexart is overhung by a ceiling of fake spiderweb. The karaoke monitor meanwhile is attended by a flaxen-haired Death, and the studio itself is flooded with a soupy red glow, submerging everything in an eerie and sacrificial light. (The exhibit opened on November 7 and is probably the result of a directive written into city law to extend Halloween interminably each year.) One is also able to sing in a fake car driving through generated landscapes of burning vehicles.
Thursday, once a song had been sung, it was struck from the list of choices, leaving the remaining participants with swiftly diminishing possibilities. Oddly enough, only a few exhibited discomfort in their performances. About halfway through, Kois retrieved Awl editor Choire Sicha’s name from the six-pack. Of the remaining songs, which, aside from The Beatles, were all in their own way unwieldy, he chose “Poison” by Bel Biv Devoe. Later someone informed me that this was Sicha’s first attempt at karaoke. Watching him, I couldn’t tell. He was impressively adequate. He has a great voice for karaoke, able to float mistily over a general ecosystem of notes. I congratulated him on his performance afterward.
“It was sort of uncomfortable to sing,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s pretty…offensive.”
“Well, it was a different time, the ‘80s.”
“Yeah, women were just bitches then.”
“Now they can have it all.”
“There’s so much more feminism now.”
It took only three songs for the room to gather the peculiar odor of a private karaoke room—some viscous admixture of earth and boiled human. It was into this unctuous atmosphere that Mac Rogers performed “It Was a Good Day,” singing every line with inappropriate effort, as if bewildered he could briefly inhabit the experience of a black man in 1993. He knew practically every word of the song, in order. He barely looked at the teleprompter. He could’ve rapped it in earnest. Instead, he played it for laughs. How absurd, to live as Mac Rogers and rap about having dead friends in South Central Los Angeles. It had its effect; laughter worked its way through the crowd. Some even considered his performance an apparent enhancement of the Ice Cube original. But “It Was a Good Day” isn’t funny. It’s fun, yes, and its deliberate expression of fun is edged by dread and sadness. Even the groove has a haunted ease about it.
At the time Rogers’ performance wasn’t racist exactly. It existed more in the universe of songs like Lorde’s “Royals,” where the disembodied images of black art are scrutinized and made ridiculous by anxious white people. Then, at the start of the third verse, I heard Rogers pronounce the n-word to near-completion as it discolored across the teleprompter. Presumably he knew the song and therefore had an awareness of the word’s frequency therein. No one reacted. Rogers completed the song unfazed. There was an unconscious velocity to it; it felt easier to doubt it.
The other song I had expected to see waver in this direction was Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “N—— in Paris.” In fact, before New York Magazine’s Lindsey Weber sailed through it without incident, I overheard Buzzfeed Music editor Matthew Perpetua threatening to attack the song himself in order to demonstrate something inalienable to us. He had been visibly and audibly aggrieved when, at the start of the showcase, Charlie Todd (as a friend put it, “THE IMPROV EVERYWHERE GUY”) selected Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair,” and he found room in his displeasure to criticize Todd’s performance. (Disclosure: Perpetua and I have disagreed publicly before. Also once, in a cab, he explained U2 to me, which I find difficult to forgive.) When finally called upon, Perpetua was supremely thankful to sing the interminable “All My Friends,” which, rendered as karaoke, enhanced the song’s leaden and eternal qualities.
Some of it was fun, though, if still mildly uninvolving. Ayesha Harris performed “Crazy in Love” incredibly, complete with limited attempts at choreography, her boyfriend acting as Jay-Z. Oddly, though, no one seemed drawn entirely out of their comfort zones, one of the ostensible purposes of karaoke. Which leaves me mostly bewildered at the function of the exhibit. Is karaoke art? If so is the art not preserved and exhibited nightly almost everywhere? And aren’t the expansive yet curiously incomplete books of countless karaoke bars far more demonstrative of its relative art than a mere sixteen songs all inclined toward indie rock and irony? Not to spend too much time assembling a theory about anything as mercurial and ephemeral as karaoke, but part of what’s shared among people singing karaoke is memory. There are memories lived and relived while inhabiting a song you love, and there are nerves reanimated in the people watching who haven’t heard or even thought about the song in years. What in this exhibit accounts for that? Can it be contained, frozen in time and witnessed? Or is it too fluid, only transpiring invisibly among a group of friends?