Johnny Cash sang that in “Daddy Sang Bass”, and truer words were never spoken. There is something profound in the act of singing, especially singing with others. In the past this was much more a part of popular culture – after all, there were no recordings, so if people wanted music, they had to sing. Whether the music was a folk song or a hymn, it brought people together in a way that few other things can.
In the West, the combined rise of technology and decline of organized religion have had many effects, but the effect on singing is one that must be lamented. Increasingly it seems that music is something that is manufactured, rather than played, songs are things that professionals record, rather than being sung by everyday people. Music is something that we now passively consume, rather than actively create or perform.
But technology has not been all bad. Courtesy of Japan, it has bought us karaoke.
Karaoke often gets a bad rap, but it is one of the joys of my life. I grew up long after the time when families routinely gathered to sing together, and I was never a big fan of singing hymns when I attended church as a child. But with karaoke, I found a way to help my troubled soul.
I have gradually worked out which songs I can handle and which I can’t. My voice is rather deep, and not too melodious, so a mixture of punk, rap, rock, and country is what I can handle best. As I sing a song more often, it gradually improves, and I enjoy it more and more. One of the songs I began singing recently is the old House of Pain hit Jump Around. I get a real kick out of singing it (and jumping around!) as do the friends I have been to karaoke with.
Apart from singing songs I like, one of the reasons I like karaoke so much is listening to the songs others have mastered and made their own. Many Japanese are good singers due to hours of practice, and more than a few foreigners can impress on the mic too. The guy from Chicago who sings an impassioned version of Beat It, complete with funky dance moves. The guy from Portland who sings everything from The Crash Test Dummies to Duran Duran, and I will never forget our combined version of Pretty Vacant. The English girl from Birmingham who performs Japanese ballads so beautifully it seems she was born to sing them. And the girl from San Diego who can sing in English, Spanish, and increasingly well in Japanese.
Singing doesn’t fix depression. But it certainly helps to alleviate it. Back in the 70s the famous music critic Lester Bangs wrote that rock music was “time off from the world.” I think that goes for music in general. The worries will still be there when the music is over. But for a few brief moments we are taken out of ourselves and elevated to something more. I am not religious, but there is something spiritual there. That is what music can do. And that is why I will always love karaoke.