“In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.”
– Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces
If there was a ship to escape Japanese culture in, the paint on the starboard front would spell karaoke and it would sail over a sea of alcohol.
It’s a wonder Michel Foucault’s name still works after being dropped so often. In 1967, the French philosopher and reluctant post-modernist delivered a lecture and essay called On Other Spaces, where he defined heterotopia.
The idea was this: Certain spaces and events are “outside” of standard social rules. These spaces collect meaning as a result of that “outsideness.” Think of a cemetery, museum or cathedral. Then think of an insane asylum, prison or a hospital.
In Japan, shrines and temples are heterotopias / “outside spaces,” with gates connecting them to the outside world (and corresponding taboos against hanging out on the thresholds).
Without these spaces, Foucault argued that societies become more compliant and repressive: “dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.”
They also show a culture through contrast: From a place where normal social rules don’t apply, you can get a better understanding of places where they do.
The karaoke booth is a heterotopic space, “in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed.” If you want to watch Japanese men setting loose their socially constrained sails, this is the place to go.
“The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces.”
The Karaoke booth is a mashup of every Japanese “release valve” invented in the past century. It’s a music archive, a dance club, a concert hall, a movie theater, a bar and a living room. But it’s also nowhere. It’s dark and secluded, sound proof and windowless. Everyone in the room sits facing in one direction. Because no one looks at anyone, nobody is anyone; we’re all anonymous until we sing.
Even the cleanest, best-lit karaoke clubs feel seedy in the hallways. Awkwardness permeates the toilet queue when you interact with other patrons. It sucks to be reminded that we are, in fact, somewhere.
We’ve paid for a room where we can abandon ourselves to the excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures, the literal definition of debauchery. (The secondary definition is especially important to Japan: seduction from duty). For apprehensive Japanese folks, it’s hard to look a stranger in the eyes after losing your voice to a cheap-synth rendition of “Born to Run.”
The Japanese run on silence and polite reserve. If it wasn’t an “outside” space, the success of Japanese karaoke would be incomprehensible. We’re talking about a country where more people sleep on a train than talk.
There’s a Japanese word that explains this transformation: “Nomihodai.” Literally translated, it means “all the alcohol you can drink.”
The karaoke booth is a bar. Nomihodai is typical in Japan: Pay a fee and drink all you want for a set number of hours. A recent karaoke outing started with 6 hours of unlimited drinks for 2100 yen ($25.00) and ended with me laying in a parking garage wondering why my money was torn in half:
“The heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time.”
You’re telling me.
Karaoke As Heterochronicity
The karaoke booth stops time. Endless purple cocktails help.
So does the darkness. And music. The entire karaoke business model depends on making you forget what time it is. If you kept track of the time, you’d be able to take full advantage of everything they’re offering. People who linger on karaoke choices are good for business if they end up taking an extra hour to finish their play list.
Karaoke disorders time by tapping into the raw nerve of nostalgia. There’s a flat screen TV where lyrics roll over B-roll footage: Archive shots of the Beatles, American cities as they were in 1989, (a pre-flood New Orleans, a pre-9/11 Manhattan skyline) and then there’s Lady Gaga, or short scenes of women walking with their hair blowing in the wind.
The best karaoke jams are the most nostalgic. This is true for Americans, too. Here’s your whole emotional life splayed out on a computer with katakana translations of lyrics you sort of remember and a chorus you danced to on a trampoline or while splashing water around a swimming pool (Note: I’m white and middle class).
For Americans, emotional songs are the go-to standard, particularly those with uncomfortably intense sincerity. The earnestness of your youth is the cheesiness of your jaded adulthood. Belting out “Don’t Stop Believing” with irony is as important an emotional milestone as the chills it gave you when you were a 9-year-old with a crush.
The karaoke room helps file your emotional memory into proper categories. When Journey ends, you’re going to move on to Lady Gaga with legit enthusiasm. And in ten years, if you’re still singing karaoke, you’ll be singing “Telephone” with irony.
In and Out
Anyone can enter one of these heterotopian locations, but, in reality, they are nothing more than an illusion: one thinks one has entered and, by the sole fact of entering, one is excluded.
Let’s go back to the awkward exchange of the karaoke singers in the toilet queue. What gives?
That interaction is an unpleasant reminder of the world “outside” the karaoke booth, where time and space gets right back to business. The Karaoke room restricts access, leaving out the social pressures of the outside world. It is defined by who comes in, but it’s more defined by who stays out.
The karaoke booth is a contract: “I’m not going to hold this against you.” The rules of normal social etiquette are ignored and people allow themselves to fail. The people inside are no longer held accountable to the rules outside.
The solo karaoke act is the most interesting, especially when it’s performed badly. In a culture as anal retentive as Japan’s, a bad karaoke performance is transcendent.
The dorky and reckless flailing of arms and the gnashing of hair metal can certainly be attributed to alcohol. But the cracked voice is a triumph of the human spirit. Karaoke stands alone in Japanese culture because skill isn’t the point; the point is to lose yourself.
Missing that high note is a kind of sublimation.
Karaoke as Mirror
“On the one hand, they perform the task of creating a space of illusion that reveals how all of real space is more illusory and all the locations within which life is fragmented. On the other, they have the function of forming another space, another real space, as perfect, meticulous, and well-arranged as ours is disordered, ill-conceived, and sketchy.”
Philosophy doesn’t really matter: Classifying whatever we like with more complicated and narrower sets of words and divisions can only do so much good on this Earth before it starts distracting us from it. The benefit of calling karaoke booths a heterotopic space might be limited to the courtship of philosophy undergrads.
But for Japanese culture, we’re left with something of an interesting proposition: A highly secular and ordered society with spiritual traditions that reinforce social cohesion and uniformity finds the sublime by drinking in dark rooms and singing along to J-Pop and rock anthems.
Karaoke is a ritual, an outlet, a “release valve,” a space “outside of Japanese society.” Like every heterotopia, entering it illuminates the “inside world” by contrast, by giving us a space to look in from out. It reminds us that other possibilities exist, that there are other selves we can be, that it’s OK to forget the words to pretty much any song Freddie Mercury has ever sung, so long as you do it with reckless abandon.
Japan has karaoke because the trains are quiet.
I wrote about Nietzsche, Wagner and Hipster Bands in 2008.
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