Culture, Karaoke, and Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature

Since most of my work is accomplished in relative isolation, by the end of the day, when most people are sick of dealing with the world and want to stay home, I’m looking for a place to go.  So, last night I wandered out to one of my favorite watering holes.

I walked in the door and was instantly reminded of the fact that it was karaoke night.  This is not my favorite activity in the world, but some good singers can be enjoyable to hear.  Watching such spectacles can also present an occasion for meditating upon human nature, as I did last night.

I arrived as a friend of mine—we’ll call him “Bob”—was singing.  I pulled him aside afterwards and in a volley of strong langauge told him that generally I’m hard to please but that I think his singing is fantastic.  He has good vocal production, a good sound, strong lungs, and he sings in tune.

After “Bob” was finished, however, we were subjected to one dreadful performance after the next, during which time many people with no musical expertise were grimmacing in pain.  “If you think this is bad,” I said to one person, “you should hear it out on the campus at Penn.  Ivy League students can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

Indeed, one person after the next marched up to the microphone last night, and in lieu of singing, shouted on a single, quasi-definite pitch from beginning to end of the song.  Incidentally, everyone who did this was under age 35.  Older singers were much, much better.

It is hard to observe something like this and not come to the conclusion that our culture has ceased to exist.  Not everyone can be Frank Sinatra, but only about two generations ago, it was taken for granted that most people could sing something.   Are these young people who publicly sound their barbaric yawps into the karoake machine the product of government funding of arts and arts education?  It’s worth a thought.

More likely, however, they’re the products of households that didn’t see music as a thing to be made, but rather as a product to be consumed.  Turn on the stereo, and listen.  Period.  Music can’t really be learned in this posture any more than I could learn to dunk a basketball by wasting my time watching NBA games.  I went to a music conservatory, but ultimately I first learned how to make music from my parents.  End of story.

The prognosis is not good.  Making it worse is an utter lack of musical discrimination on the part of most people.  More annoying than that, however, is the ridiculous idea that everyone can sing just fine, no matter how bad it sounds.  This is why the tone deaf are not embarrassed to sing in public—and why most people don’t dare to tell them that they stink.

“What, you think you’re better than me?”  Yes, I do.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Standards are how we achieve things; they help us to improve.  Egalitarianism is one of the greatest tyrannies of all, because it prevents what is truly good from being an example to everyone else.

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2 Responses

  1. Perhaps this decline in singing is also due to the decline in church music. I’ve been told I have a good singing voice, and I definitely attribute this to my grandmother (R.I.P.) pulling out the table-top Magnus Organ and playing Christmas carols and hymns while my grandfather, mother, and myself sang along. However, it was not until my years as an Anglican that I learned to read music, by following along in a hymnal.

  2. I think M.J. Ernst-Sandoval is correct that the decline in church music–and in church attendance–has contributed to this mess. If a parish uses “praise and worship” music, the hymnals for that don’t have any printed music in them. You have no chance of singing along if you don’t already know the tune, and if you do, you have missed the opportunity to learn the rudiments of music-reading by following along with printed notation. Plus, the relatively undemanding nature of such music means that you don’t need to learn to carry a tune to sing along.

    This sort of thing, coupled with what you mention about music viewed as a product to be consumed rather than produced, has certainly created a problem. Furthermore, the things that are supposed to make the consumer part of the music-making process–Guitar Hero, GarageBand, even karaoke–actually further divorce people from the process of making music. It’s about as close to music-making as assembling a 500-piece puzzle of a Renoir work is to actually learning to paint.

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