“Since U Been Gone”: Karaoke As An Art Form
Of course somebody sang “I Will Always Love You”. I knew a karaoke bar the night of Whitney Houston’s death would feature that song. And I should have guessed it would be an exceptionally drunk man around 30 who probably couldn’t sing “Row Your Boat” under the soberest of circumstances. Who hasn’t sung the chorus of that song at least a couple times, whether to yourself in the shower or attempting to show off your chops to somebody who will be inherently underwhelmed? The song is powerful and emotional and a classic. I am willing to wager that not a single bar featuring karaoke was spared the fate that I underwent on Saturday night. I had recently arrived, and I had yet to consume any alcohol and it was fairly insufferable, though in the best possible way of course, the way a YouTube video of a pre-teen girl shrieking her way through an Adele song is. There was something that night, whether it was the beer I ingested, the smoky climate we found ourselves in, or the communal experience of making a fool of yourself in front of a room of people who only care because they want their chance to humiliate themselves. Karaoke is an art form, though not in the tradition sense.
An art form is defined as “any activity regarded as a medium of imaginative or creative self-expression.” Karaoke easily falls into these parameters, and I know this from first hand experience. Eventually that night I found my way to the stage and belted (or “screamed” if you want to get technical) “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson. It was late and all of my friends joined me so there was a complete absence of judgment, even less so the average performance at one of these establishments. That climate: surrounded by people that I love, a belly full of watered-down beer, and a ubiquitous hit that even those not able to see a screen could sing word for word. This is of course the setting of every karaoke bar unless you have managed to find the saddest place on earth. Remove any of those elements and you have a recipe for absolute disaster completely absent of enjoyment. If the song isn’t popular the crowd will grow bored and you’ll find yourself mumbling while glaring eyes await your departure. Lose the alcohol and there’s less freedom, more risk. If you were to remove your friends from the situation you would find yourself at my 6th grade cast party and see me singing “Love Shack” to absolutely no one at all. No one wants to see that.
“Since U Been Gone” was released in 2004, the second single from Clarkson’s second album Breakaway. Her third album, My December, was released in response to her experiences touring for Breakaway. Clarkson has been quoted as saying that the tour completely wore her down. She claims this was the lowest moment of her career and her entire life. She was getting over someone. She felt separated from the ones she loved. She couldn’t smile. While my situation differs from hers a little, I found some amount of truth in singing “Since U Been Gone”. Of course, she did not write that song and I am ascribing it with whatever meaning I need to in order to make my point. This is what we do with all forms of art though. We interpret.
When the tinny instrumental intro began to blare through the speakers I felt a jolt within me that had a large amount to do with my difficulty standing at the time. Then I began to sing. “Since U Been Gone” is a very good pop song, but it is by no means worthy of the emotional experience I had while singing it. I began to channel every ounce of what I was feeling into those carefully constructed radio friendly lyrics. I thought of the girl I love that I never see anymore. I thought of my impending 20th birthday, and the existential crisis I’m allowing myself to have with that. I thought of Valentine’s Day and what I would do to overcome yet another year of being alone. I thought of all the schoolwork I had to get done. The song completely drained me, both physically and emotionally. I entered “Since U Been Gone” happy. I left slightly different. This is not to claim that I felt the transformative power in one drunken rendition that Clarkson felt on a surely tiring and pressure-filled world tour. I am not a different man because this time when I sang “Since U Been Gone” her voice wasn’t there guiding me along. I am saying, though, that I felt something. There was a shift within me because of what I had just done. I was screeching the final chorus because I could not handle the emotions raging inside of me. I didn’t have a breakdown. As soon as the song was over I was able to collect myself (at least emotionally, not so much physically). But a switch had been flipped somewhere.
The beauty of karaoke as art lies with the sole benefactor being the artist. The audience feels nothing more from my version of “Since U Been Gone” than Clarkson’s. Actually, they probably feel quite a deal less. I, the person creating the art, was the only one gaining any benefit from it. Now, you can say that the art in question is the song that is playing minus vocals. While that’s true to an extent, the absence of the singer’s voice, or even the absence of their voice being the focal point, shifts the entire dynamic of the piece. Look at any number of pieces of art from the web, from Pogo’s gorgeous music videos to an RPG rendition of Breaking Bad. These “artistic visions” are simply re-appropriations of previously existing works. This debate has been important, especially recently in the wake of the now-deceased SOPA. If I use someone else’s work to create my own work, I have still created my own work.
Placing this vitally important argument in the context of karaoke may seem silly and even dangerous, reducing an important debate to something completely trivial. What I’m saying is that my experience creating this art wasn’t trivial at all. I’m sure quite often people sing at bars without undergoing whatever it is I went through. Most probably exit the stage smiling and high-fiving their friends. That joy however is no less trivial.
In his manifesto, Reality Hunger, David Shields argues that art cannot be copyrighted because art is representative of reality and reality cannot be copyrighted. What I felt holding that microphone was reality, or more accurately, a variation on reality. Because “real” is so utterly elusive art can only hope to capture a fraction of “realness”. What I felt that night wasn’t real so much as it was “real”. I felt as if I was Kelly Clarkson, at the end of the Breakaway World Tour, someone stuck in my mind that I would do better to forget, exhausted with the disparity of the everyday. When I stopped singing that feeling faded and I was Josh Oakley, my belly a bit too full, my steps a bit uncertain, the room full of smoke and crowds of people that hadn’t any clue who I was. Yet, hanging in the air, like cinematic proof that the dream wasn’t simply a hallucination; I found that my heart remained heavy. As I pushed my way back to the table where my friends were waiting, I realized it hadn’t been a dream at all. I really had been Kelly Clarkson, on the last leg of her tour, belting a song everyone loved. I was all of that, and stayed all of that, and all of the unfortunate baggage that comes along with it.