Once More, With Feeling: GLEE “Imagines” a Karaoke Future

Curator's Note

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.


Karaoke's connection to passion and homage is a very good point. And it is amateur singing as well, which is a central fantasy of Glee. Karaoke does seem like a mode of listening that fits the series well, as it includes a very supportive mode and a very cynical jeering mode, perhaps more on display in the season finale from the blond female judge towards the Deaf school's singing.

What do you make of the fact that this imagined new world is riven assunder by the opportunity to get ahead, via the leaked song list? Does that sour this moment?

On a side issue, do the creators provide any justification for how the lead singer hears his music cues? If he's Deaf, then I have profound doubts that it's possible for him to hear the vibrations from the instruments, as we're dealing with a piano playing high notes, rather than an orchestra or a bass-heavy song. If he's hard-of-hearing, what tones he could hear would vary, making it possible that he could get the high, airy notes of Lennon's song.

I have always loved, and continue to love Christine's astute reflections on karaoke (and of course, on many occasions, singing "Alone" and numerous other hits alongside her). And after a week of hitting some of those noraebang's in NY's tiny K-Town for up to 5 1/2 hours recently--many are BYOB, and can foster those underage desires to "sing it out."

I'm wondering, Christine, if you read the recent article in the L.A. Times about the supposed demise of the karaoke industry as a result of pirating, the recession, newfound forms of "at home" karaoke, Rock Band, etc. Of course, the article doesn't take into account the Pan-Asian cultural histories and investments in karaoke as more than just a social pasttime or trend, but something more filial, long term, and significant. Anyway, I'd be curious to hear more about where you think karaoke as a practice may go or evolve? Or how it can and maybe should remain an 'artifact' for certain worlds?


Thanks to David and Karen for the provocative comments & questions.

To start off (and because I couldn't include a full explanation in my post due to word count limits), the "feeling" of karaoke in real life, for me, does not get carried out in onstage romantic dyads (as referenced by Will & April's Heart-to-heart moments or by films like "Duets" or "Lost in Translation") but, instead, in the work of larger ensembles. That being said, I do think there is a space for an "imagined new world" amidst competition and I think its noteworthy that this "performance" of "Imagine" takes place during a rehearsal -- a space of experimentation and preparation. The striving to imagine a new world, then, is about process and, as my friend Alexandra Vazquez has pointed out in her writing, "protocols" -- figuring out our modes of belonging to each other. As my high school driver's ed teacher would say, "It's not the destination, it's the journey." Or, as one of the deaf actors from the "Hairography" episode commented on the New York Times website -- "The reason the deaf choir, myself included, were not upset about the glee kids joining us mid song was because a. We saw how bad they were, and wanted to teach them/show them how its done. B. It showed us that the music and a.s.l. reached them so like a jazz group they added their skill and instrument while we jammed together with our lyrical signing." I think this notion of "jammin'" with others is a useful way of imagining utopia in musical terms. 

Briefly, in regards to the LA Times article, I veer towards situating this alarmist article within a larger trajectory of journalistic takes on the demise of the music industry as we know it. For while less people are going out to karaoke bars or renting karaoke rooms, they are accessing forms of karaoke more fit for "private" (read, home or even personal) consumption. Not to sound like too much of a capitalist, but I feel these trends are good for business in that, as the karaoke business owner notes near the end of the article, it forces owners to think of other ways to advertise and provide specials for both the karaoke mavens and non-singing/karaoke novices. Again, this article is useful for pointing out the difference in sites of karaoke performance -- meaning, for some groups in the U.S., karaoke takes place not as an isolated or one-night-a-week event at only a bar or in a private room but, instead, at restaurants during dinner time, at family parties and community functions, or in the work place. Likewise, to think that karaoke is merely a U.S. phenomenon is to remain blind to its international scope -- both in that it permeates social life in Asia AND that diasporic/migrant Asians carry it with them wherever they may go.

This all just further fuels my desire (as well as frustration) that GLEE's Tina and the "other Asian" character soon grab the (Magic) mic on the show.


Christine, thanks for this great post. Am wondering where you think YouTube's deep and wide ecology of fan vid culture fits in the changing story of karaoke. Seems to me that Glee is very much a YouTube show, in that it exists as much as a show itself as a show that gets re-enacted, re-sung, lip-dubbed countless times on YouTube each week (the rush to download the week's songs becomes the rush to upload fan videos). The cast's recent appearance on Oprah even included a montage of YouTube fan performances. In a way, YouTube has become one big virtual karaoke bar, or has it? I'm wondering what you think about how important the differences are there in how we understand the performance of fandom, but also how we understand the way TV shows now in many ways require identifiable cultures of online fandom to survive.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.