Tag Archives: issue6

Why We Sing

by Huy Dao


Karaoke.  I’d even do it sober; but that’s starting at the end.

There’s something that happens to people the first time they hear themselves amplified.  Some recoil, some close their eyes and revel, some need to do it again just to make sure they heard it right.  From cheesy late night Asian phenomenon to mainstream activity via video games, karaoke has become a cultural force in some circles.  In my circle – a circle that deals with brutality, crime, and advocacy – it’s become more: stress relief.  Shouting out the day’s or week’s misery has served to bring people closer, even those who just watch, and has reinforced the notion of tribe.  We do this work, we face these pressures, and, perversely sometimes, we let it out on the ears of strangers.

The local karaoke joint is, of course, also a bar.  We call it the Second Office.  We take our clients there:  people who served time for crimes they didn’t commit.  We invite our friends there, the brave ones who would step into our tribe to sing.  We go there to be anonymous to everyone but ourselves, because strangers at karaoke rarely ask you why you’re there.  We don’t have to explain it to ourselves.  We don’t care if you can sing.  We don’t even care if you sing, but if you do, we care more about how you sass the mic. We clap for your enthusiasm, not your pipes.  We may wince, but we’ll cheer you when you’re done.

What started out in my living room as a party-ender has become a way of life at work.  The transformation was not conscious, but did seem to follow a trajectory.  That is, in a small non-profit, it is easy to move across the blurry lines between people you work with, people you hang out with, people you call your friends – and people you’ll sing with.  There is a dropping of the curtain, a revealing vulnerability when you decide that singing “Endless Love” in front of coworkers is all right.  Like any after-work time at a bar, there is the requisite complaining session, expressions of weariness, and sometimes office intrigue, but eventually your turn comes up and you get up to perform.  To do that, you need to get something out of some other (often ridiculous) place inside, something you won’t see in the office.

At first I thought of it as just the bar around the corner from work.  The drinks were weak, the food and the crowd unpredictable, but we went there anyway and we sang anyway.  Then the bar burned down.  So we tried the other bar down the street.  Not just any bar, though.  Now it had to have karaoke.  It became a thing, the default.  Singing became the default after-work activity, the thing people thought to do on particularly hard days.  Then it became the place to have celebrations, to lay it out in front of (and encourage the participation of) people who had spent years inside, wrongfully.  How does that compute?  I don’t know, but it just makes sense now.  Of course we should sing.  Who doesn’t want to sing?

Sociologists, psychologists, maybe anthropologists could do a better job explaining the cultural forces at play.  We are often too weary, or too bleary, to understand what is so satisfying about getting up in front of office mates and strangers on a Tuesday night to sing power ballads. Or attempt the high harmony of a Heart song.  There is a sense about it, though, that explaining it would be impossible, that we couldn’t be explained by this activity.  That may be the psychology of a junkie.  I’ve often heard, and said, “I need to take a break from the whole karaoke thing.”

They always come back, though.  I always go back.

For us, as our own audience, we perform for each other in some vague but important way.  Dedications are not uncommon, but imagine a karaoke session where the words actually mean something.

Underneath the cheese, a current of shared memory in familiar songs, reasons you don’t have to explain.

True or not, at the base level, we know we understand.  We know why he’s singing that one again; we know who she’s singing about.  Group therapy in the weirdest guise.  I would never have predicted the odd office  following, that someone other than me would choose to do this instead of going home or out elsewhere if there was a choice.  You see, there’s no workplace reward for coming, no career punishment for not coming, no automatic friendship if you come, no hard feelings if you skip.

You come when you need to come, sing when you need to sing.  And if you sass the mic, we’ll support you, and maybe even sing along.  Brilliant.

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cover (6)


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books we are reading (2)

It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.

– George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

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political prisoner of the month (3)


Yes, we know this is Lynne Stewart’s second time as Political Prisoner of the Month, and there are so many more political prisoners and so few months, we know! But she has breast cancer, and can’t be treated in the we’re sure palacious prison where she currently resides. That takes tits – as in ‘balls’ except way more brave and courageous and worthy of praise, emulation and defense. And that’s the kind of tits not even cancer can take away, much less the state of Texas.

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overheard pearls from granny smith (4)

1. This coffee’s colder than a turd. 2. I should know. Just had the worst case of the back door trots I’ve had since the Great Ache in ‘39. 3. Sometimes I’m blind in one eye and can’t see out the other, and I stumbled on a frozen dropping. 4. But gosh all hemlock, my gut heavier than a ton of bricks, I got to the privy. 5. It ain’t built like a brick shit house, but it’s home.

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Norman Finkelstein inverview

interview via email

HANDOUT: I heard you in a talk briefly describe the feelings of hope and optimism surrounding the early days of Mao, and how you wouldn’t try to explain this to someone too young to have experienced it, because they would not understand.

FINKELSTEIN: I suppose there’s a whole literature on the idealism (idealistic illusions?) of youth being dispelled by the cruel realities of life.  Most people use this life’s experience as a rationalization for their decision to join the mainstream.  The bigger challenge is to preserve one’s hope without being naive.  I still believe most people are basically good.  It’s power and privilege that corrupt, so we must both be ever-vigilant and also contrive a society that puts checks on power and privilege without curbing the ordinary human desire to be distinguished and achieve success in life.

HANDOUT: Do you foresee the possibility of the “cruel realities of life” – at least those caused by inequality and power relations – being made less cruel or less intrusive into people’s lives? How do you think this can be achieved? If most people will join the mainstream, the only answer is to change the mainstream?


FINKELSTEIN: By “cruel realities of life,” I meant that, in our youth, we want to believe that the people we look up to are motivated by the idealism of their words.  It is only later that we discover that ambition, vanity, power-lust, self-aggrandizement, etc. play a major larger role in human motivation than we might have wished.


The object of politics must always be changing the mainstream; otherwise it’s either a cult or a cabal.   I have no interest in only reaching like-minded people.


Norman Finkelstein is a writer, scholar and professor. He is the author of eight books that have been translated into 50 foreign editions. 

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cut up (theradiodispatch)

A lot don’t see it always more than twelve. Put bloom in jail throw hands up a failing easy way to fix this. Proposal go anywhere wouldn’t say we wanted to double the borrow that kind of initiative. Power in policy.

stolen from theradiodispatch.com

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Buy U.S. made!


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words we wouldn’t use aloud because we don’t know how to say them (1)

effete – we hope this doesn’t mean we’re weak!

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five easy feces


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