"Karaoke Culture" by Dubravka Ugresic [Read This Next]

This week’s Read This Next title is Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic, which is translated from the Croatian by David Williams, Celia Hawkesworth, and Ellen Elias-Bursac, and is coming out from Open Letter at the end of the month.

I’m really excited about this book—in my opinion, it’s one of the best things Dubravka’s ever written, right up there with Thank You for Not Reading and her fiction.

We’ve posted the first four sections of the opening essay—an essay that’s over a 100 pages long and is god damn brilliant—for you to check out.

It needs to be said upfront: I’m not a karaoke fan. This essay was not only conceived, but also half-finished, when it occurred to me to go and catch a bit of real karaoke. They say Casablanca is the most popular karaoke bar in Amsterdam. My companion and I, both neophytes, arrived at eight on the dot, as if we were going to the theatre and not a bar. Casablanca was empty. We took a walk down Zeedijk, a narrow street packed with bars whose barmen look like they spend all day at the gym and all night in the bar. Muscles and baggy eyelids—that pretty well describes our barman at Casablanca, to which we soon returned. On a little stage, two tall, slender young women were squawking a Dutch pop song into a couple of upright microphones. A concert featuring Dutch pop stars played on the bar’s TV screens but was drowned out by the evening’s young karaoke stars. The girls sang with more heart than the guys, and for a second I thought there must be an invisible policeman standing over them. The whole thing was a deaf collective caterwaul: deaf insofar as nobody actually listened to anyone. Amsterdam is definitely not the place for a karaoke initiation. I’m not sure why I even thought of going to see karaoke in Amsterdam—maybe because of the paradox that sometimes turns out to be true, that worlds open up where we least expect.

What is karaoke in actual fact? Karaoke (Japanese for “empty orchestra”) is entertainment for people who would like to be Madonna or Sinatra. The karaoke machine was invented in the early seventies by the Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue—who forgot to patent his invention, and so others cashed in. A few years ago Inoue apparently won the alternative Nobel Peace Prize (the Ig Nobel), awarded by The Annals of Improbable Research. They praised him for “providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.”

Cultural critics are people who are prepared to see more in the craze for tattoos than just a passing fashion fad. I’m a member of this dubious guild. In karaoke I’m ready to see more than just desperate squawking to the backing track of “I Will Survive.” Karaoke supports less the democratic idea that everyone can have a shot if they want one and more the democratic practice that everyone wants a shot if there’s one on offer. The inventor of karaoke, Daisuke Inoue, is a humble man, most proud of having helped the Japanese, emotionally reticent as they are said to be, change for the better. As Pico Iyer wrote: “As much as Mao Zedong or Mohandas Gandhi changed Asian days, Inoue transformed its nights.”

In addition to that long preview, you can also read a full review of the book by clicking here. And later in the week we’ll be posting an interview with translator David Williams . . .

Also, for anyone in NY, she’s going to be reading at St. Mark’s Bookstore on Tuesday, October 11th at 7pm. And for those of you in Boston, she’ll be at the Brookline Bookstore on Friday the 14th at 7pm.


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