Killing Karaoke

Camped out in Beverly Hills
Typing in the dark as the troops sleep
2305 hrs.
No, We Don’t Take Requests

Karaoke used to be cool.

I’m talking 18 years ago when I was a furniture buyer for a U.S. importer living in Taiwan, Karaoke was a fun, exciting way to spend an evening, whether there were hostesses sitting with you and forcing you to drink overpriced brandy or not. What the hell – I wasn’t paying. Doing this was part of my job.

Then when I was working for a hot sportswear startup in the Mainland in the early 1990s, Karaoke was still cool. We’d sing everything from old Carpenters songs to Taiwanese pop to Cantopop to Cultural Revolution songs. And it was cool, and I got to be the singing monkey after a while, able to do the tough songs and the duets all in Chinese.

Then, when I was courting my wife and she took me out to dinner with her family, where she sang me love songs and her mother (an accomplished professional soprano) would sing songs from “The Red Detatchment of Women,” Karaoke was cool.

But then, I don’t know how, or exactly when, it just got old.

Maybe because sometime after 1995 we all started getting down to business and stopped going. Maybe because there were more choices of things to do after dinner. The last time I remember getting dragged out to Karaoke was by a vendor for the company I was working for in 1997 down in Hong Kong. Whatever it was, when I walked out of China-Hong Kong City that night (for the record, I left alone), I was relieved the evening was over.

Apart from the occasional humiliation at company parties or at home (for reasons unbeknownst to me, they always ask me to do my rendition of “La Bamba”), I’ve since avoided Karaoke, and I think I’m better for it.

I get the feeling a lot of my contemporaries feel the same. So when the central government starts talking about censoring Karaoke song selections, I don’t get all huffy about censorship – I merely breathe a sigh of relief. I know that over time fewer and fewer of my repasts will be disturbed by some half-drunk office manager warbling a sap-oozing ballad in a completely new key.

Electric Euthanasia

None of this is to say Karaoke will die. As tired as I and many others may be of Karaoke, it’s success is based on that least logical of beliefs that plague so many of us – that we actually sing better than others give us credit for, at least to ourselves, and we all want to be rock stars.

Karoke will morph. By restricting the songs that can be commercially played in Karaoke bars, the Chinese government is basically doing to those establishments what it has long done to cinemas – ensuring that the publicly delivered content is so bland that no official could ever get in trouble for allowing it to be played, and very few people see the point of paying for it. The results will be the same – Karaoke, like the movies, is being driven into the home.

Think of the trends that point to this:

1. The boom in the housing market that is moving a growing proportion of Chinese into homes that are actually suitable for entertaining guests.

2. The growth of digital home entertainment systems.

3. The explosion in downloadable content.

Want to Karaoke to whatever song you want? Set up your home system, download the file with your handset or your PC (or buy black-market Karaoke content from the guy who sells you pirated DVDs), and you’re off. Much more fun, much cheaper (in the long run), and far more flexible. Indeed, you don’t even need an expensive setup – within a year, you’ll be able to do it all on a mobile phone with an external pair of speakers.

The point is, all the new regulations will do is speed a process that is already taking place. This is anothe nail in the coffin of Karaoke as we know it, and a big step toward Karaoke becoming a pastime enjoyed in private.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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