I suppose it was inevitable. Japanese imperialism may have stalled just east of India, but its most (in)famous invention has screechily colonised much of Asia and primetime TV worldwide. (Incidentally, my grandfather was very vaguely involved in the former, with a quiet dignity that seems characteristic of the family. He received a war pension for injuries sustained in Burma—turns out he tipsily fell out of a house-on-stilts and broke his nose. Other lion-hearted ancestors include miscellaneous frauds and drunkards; several Bengalis who greeted the opportunity to become imperial minions with unseemly boot-kissing eagerness; and one shipwrecked whaler who allegedly ate a cabin boy.) The surprise is that karaoke took so long to get here.
The popular Japanese drug hit D-Town in January 2007 and its abuse has increased exponentially since. It caters especially to the increasing numbers of East Asians in the city—so we found ourselves in a very nice Korean restaurant, furtively edging towards the microphone across puddles of seafood broth. The karaoke menu was a vast weighty tome, 95% full of either Korean or Wingdings. This was a professional operation.
As enema-loving Karaoke Sauron Simon Cowell has realised, we all secretly believe we have innate musical talent. In my case I appear to be pathologically unable to keep this delusion secret.
Rarely am I accused of an excess of gravitas or reserve at the best of times—and then I was introduced to soju, a Korean liquor that tastes deceptively innocuous but in fact is ‘composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave and four parts clarified Satan‘. These, it turns out, are the ingredients of a karaoke monster.
I’ll gloss over the events of the next painful hours of despotic mic-hogging, yowling, rapping (oh god), eyes-closed Cher renditions, and spatters of grisly-looking kimchi. Suffice to say my voice was even better with the chorus of mucus a summer cold had brought. The other customers were evacuated, white-faced. Every video was accompanied by an entirely inappropriate video—Queen with a Lord of the Rings tribute, ‘Mrs Robinson’ with what looked like a ham sandwich commercial. Some oaf put on Jingle Bells. Every now and then a Korean-language song came on and we’d bawl ‘Wonderwall’ over the top with all the cultural sensitivity of the Beijing Olympics—the staff were near tears, and on reflection we were quite possibly massacring the Korean national anthem.
Weirdly, though, the clientele was heavily expat, with a smattering of overseas-stricken locals. Indians love singing and Delhi loves camp—you’d think Bollykaraoke start-ups would be on every street corner. But maybe its pure unadulterated uncool is the reason it hasn’t really taken off yet. Being a Bourgeois Young Dilliwallah is all about performance—looking sophisticated, fashionable, and composed. Most B.Y.Ds drink photogenically, not with the liver-nuking bingey zeal of Westerners; they go to chic all-you-can-eat brunches and sushi places and nibble cucumber rolls; to huge spasming beats they dance sleekly with sky-high stilettos and without sweatiness. Everything is self-conscious, earnest.
Karaoke, on the other hand, is ritual public humiliation—and you walk into it voluntarily, tongue ostentatiously in cheek. Like kitsch (or blogging…), it attempts to tread the fine exhibitionist line between irony and cretinous narcissism. Are your buddies laughing with you or at you?
With that unnerving thought, I’m off to hyperventilate into a paper bag.