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.