Q: Where does a high school theatre nerd unleash her inner Lea Salonga after she’s reached the drinking age?
A: A karaoke bar.
In the fifth episode of GLEE’s inaugural season, Mr. Shue and fellow “gleek” April Rhodes rekindle adolescent passions on a local bar’s karaoke stage framed by a tinsel curtain backdrop and burly Bingo machine operator in the wings. A failed Broadway star but successful alcoholic, April musically seduces Will—his deferred dream come true— with their rousing rendition of Heart’s “Alone.”
While the only overt scene of karaoke on the show thus far, GLEE fosters karaoke aesthetics—unabashedly public singing and unapologetic cover versioning—through its weekly broadcast of musical numbers and online marketing of Myspace karaoke video contests and bonus karaoke tracks on its soundtrack. GLEE continually toes the line between consumer and participant, fan and performer summed up in karaoke’s directive: “Sing your life.”
As communication technology and social practice, karaoke and its affect-driven aesthetics have seen an upsurge in popularity over the past two decades. According to Brian Raftery, karaoke and its offspring (video games, online websites, and reality TV shows) offset the isolationism of private consumption technologies (the Walkman and iPod) in the U.S. by making listening communal again. Yet, in Asian America, karaoke has played a vital role in business, family, and nightlife since Daisokue Inoue’s invention in 1971. In noraebangs littering Seoul’s sidewalks and New York’s 32nd Street, on Magic Mics in hostess bars and cruise ships, karaoke mediates everyday traffic ranging from the intoxicating (recent crackdowns on ecstasy drug use in Vietnam’s private karaoke rooms) to the violent (“My Way” killings in the Philippines). In each of these scenes, karaoke remains a mode of belonging to strange and familiar others through popular music.
Karaoke—as a performance style with this utopic potential to assemble—finds its ultimate GLEE moment when Mercedes is compelled to accompany McKinley’s rivals in John Lennon’s “Imagine.” As the Haverbook students sign/sing, we listen again to the song’s melancholically hopeful lyrics and relearn what it means to feel the music. Once more, with these feelings, two groups of singers—one deaf, one hearing—come together to imagine a different world through song.