This essay explores the disputed origins of the first karaoke machine and explains how karaoke eventually evolved into a term of judgment in star- making media such as reality vocal competition shows. What Tongson calls the double- edged “karaoke standard” — whether a competitor’s performance sounds like a direct imitation of the original and thus, according to judges, “like karaoke” — was famously invoked by Simon Cowell during the early seasons of American Idol. Karaoke has often been imagined as a technology that enables the everyman or everywoman to experience, if only for the length of the song, the power that comes with commanding the stage as a star. And yet, this essay argues, instead of verifying the wide chasm between celebrity and mere imitation, the karaoke standard reminds us of how narrow the gap actually is between amateur recreation and pop prowess.
Empty Orchestra: The Karaoke Standard and Pop Celebrity
Karen Tongson is an associate professor of English and gender studies at the University of Southern California and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (2011). She is currently the series editor for Postmillennial Pop at New York University Press, associate editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies, and events editor at American Quarterly. Her current book project, “Empty Orchestra: Karaoke, Critical, Apparatus,” critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while providing a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.
Karen Tongson; Empty Orchestra: The Karaoke Standard and Pop Celebrity. Public Culture 1 January 2015; 27 (1 (75)): 85–108. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2798355
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