Karaoke! —by Jinny Batterson
My direct experience of Chinese karaoke is limited—the couple of times I went with Chinese colleagues, there was too much smoking and drinking for my taste. Also, despite a few “American standards” among the song selections, nearly all the lyrics were in Chinese characters, so I had no idea how to pronounce the words, or what I might or might not be saying. That said, “KTV,” the standard version of karaoke for most of the time I spent in China, is immensely popular. At its seamiest, it is little more than a prelude for various activities that have little or nothing to do with singing. At its best, it is a harmless and rather inexpensive way for groups of people to enjoy an evening out.
A Chinese KTV will often be adjacent to or attached to a hotel (see “seamiest” potential above). In most mid-to-large sized cities, the establishments’ exteriors are brightly lit, with a good bit of flashing neon. Inside, there’s a cashier’s station and then hallways lined with private rooms. Each room has a padded door, padded walls and padded sofas. Usually there’s a low table in the center. There’s at least one microphone, plus amplifiers, a large screen television (the “TV” part), and a console with a variable selection of popular tunes programmed into it. The smallest rooms might accommodate up to six people comfortably (depending somewhat on girth), the largest likely no more than ten. Depending on the establishment, rooms rent by the hour or by the evening. Beer, wine, and various stronger drinks are readily available for purchase. Most karaoke places also serve snacks. Volume controls range from “loud” to “earsplitting.” In my limited experience, a good singing voice or knowledge of the melodies is not required—in some cases, either could even be an impediment.
During the school year I spent in Ya’an, Sichuan (2008-2009), college students several times invited me to join them at a local karaoke establishment. I never took them up on it—I was a bit uncomfortable at the prospect of being a generation or two older than the other participants, and likely the only teetotaler in the room. As nearly as I could tell from their behavior at other times, most of these students’ expeditions were of the more innocent kind. A weekend evening of karaoke was a welcome release in a fairly small place with few other entertainment alternatives. A chance to “sing one’s heart out” could be therapeutic in a culture that, though changing, was still somewhat regimented and repressive.
Some of my friends in the U.S. have at various times purchased and used karaoke machines. The one commercial setting where I attended “American karaoke” had an atmosphere less intimate than my limited experiences in China—a large, dimly lit bar with a single screen and P/A system near the front of the room, with a live DJ to play song selections for an audience of dozens. Printed songbooks as thick as old-fashioned telephone directories listed available tunes. Most of the potential crooners needed a goodly amount of beer as lubrication before they were willing to perform. Karaoke at private parties suits me better. Once I had a chance to do a Chinese duet with a more fluent Chinese-American friend at a local social gathering. (Both of us rehearsed a bit ahead of time.)
I’m not sure how existing variations of karaoke will last in our Internet-mediated age, and how the differing styles now found in parts of Asia, Europe, and the Americas will over time blend and change into yet another form of group entertainment. But I offer a suggestion: As the New Year (solar) approaches, consider incorporating Internet karaoke into your celebrations. There are thousands of karaoke-style song versions, including over 64,000 variations of an old New Year’s Eve favorite. So, if you haven’t already been coached, get someone to explain the impossible spelling, then sing to yourself or to as many others as you’re comfortable serenading, Bobby Burns’s farewell to the year just ending, “Auld Lang Syne” (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOiVmwOOXwE or one of many others.)