Sunday, August 15, 2010

Singin’ seems to help a troubled soul

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.


  1. Now, I have earworms (the "official" term for a song that keeps repeating over and over in your head" stuck in my head. I really liked this post because it was a light way of showing us one way out of depression.

    My father about 12 years ago took my whole family, on a cruise to Alaska. And being on a cruise ship, Karaoke seems to be a top hit for entertainment, which totally makes sense.

    Like you I had no religious upbringing other than going to temple which I hated for a number of reasons, but we didn't have a group choir or anything similar. On this cruise, my father who is not the least bit public (or my step-mother for that matter) about anything that might "embarass" them sang together the old torch song, "My Funny Valentine" and I loved it! My whole family, except my son who was then around 11 and way too cool to do anything around grown-ups didn't participate. Now he probably would sing a song from the group "A tribe called Quest". I should ask him if he'd go to karaoke, but I still think he'd be way too embarassed to sing in front of me or god forbid hear me sing, lol...

    I'm not flamboyant and my singing voice, well, is best left to showers. My brother and I did our creaky version of "I've got you babe" perfect for two people right? I did three songs; Sid. V's version of "My Way" from "Great Rock'n'Roll swindle" which the left the crowd totally puzzled, a smoky version of "These Boots were made for Walking" and a funny version of the old 50's song, "My Boyfriends Back". I swear my whole family felt closer after this experience and I still wish we would all go out and do Karaoke again, but I know that's not gonna happen.

    When we get songs stuck in our head and it's annoying the heck out of us, I believe it's because we don't have a public place to sing our hearts out and have fun doing it without all the damaging criticism we might have otherwise in public.

    So, now I've got an "earworm" "My Way" (Sid's version of course" and I'm walking around performing an unofficial karaoke to my cats...and your post brought so much to consciousness. It's the archetype of the Greek Choir singing about mythology, tragedy, and the historical events which touched everyone's life.

    We have that lacking for must of us who don't have that choir official or unofficially. We can sing with the best of them and not get booed off the stage unless one's trying too hard to get the "perfect reaction" from the audience.

    "Jump Around" I can just imagine that, lol...And "Pretty Vacant" I'm sure the Pistols would approve of that; well, Sid would have probably. I don't know about Mr. Lydon ; ) Thanks for a great post Whether it's the Man in Black (btw one of my fave. singers and people in general, and thanks for the vid.) who was made for Karaoke or Sonny and Cher, it's all good...

  2. I totally agree with you... singing helps me feel better and forget about everything for a while...

  3. I've never tried karaoke, but your post makes it sound fun and worthwhile. I'm too shy to do something like that in a crowd, but I do enjoy singing when I'm alone, or especially when driving. I think it's very true that music helps with depression and is uplifting for the soul. For half my life, I've used music to put myself to sleep at night, and I use it to motivate myself to do unseemly tasks like cleaning, which I'm prone to totally avoiding without musical motivation. I think it's great you've found something like this to help you deal with your depression.

  4. Hi all, thanks for your responses!

    Wendy, thanks for the story of your own karaoke experience, and I hope that your cats weren't too freaked out by your impromptu channelling of Sid Vicious! I was not quite sure what you meant by the Greek chorus reference though, and how that relates to karaoke.

    Vagabond Sister, yes, singing definitely helps us forget about things for a while. We should all do it more often!

    Jen, you are right, even if we are too shy to sing to a crowd, even singing alone, in the shower or when driving, can help improve our mood. And listening to quiet music can be a great way to put ourselves to sleep too.

    There is a record store in Japan called Tower Records, and it's slogan is "No Music, No Life". I am not usually a big fan of corporate slogans, but I like that one.