There are moments when it really clicks that you live in a foreign culture. I am not talking about language barriers or exotic cuisine; no, what I am referring to are flashing incidents that point to the reality that things are not normal. This most recent epiphany took place in a South Korean karaoke club. I was enthusiastically singing a Sex Pistols song (“Anarchy in the U.K.”), standing on a chair and dramatically slamming a tambourine against a wall, when the apple of enlightenment dropped out from the ceiling and stuck me squarely on the head. It sounded exactly like an oven timer going off, “ding”! The Sex Pistols do not play the tambourine, nor do they carefully read lyrics off a television monitor to get a higher score. The synthetic music blared without drums, guitar, or a bass line. Like a background tune in an elevator or an unobtrusive supermarket ditty, the classic Punk Rock song lulled me with its computer-programmed single keyboard melody. The microphone heavily echoed with reverb that conveniently disguised my atrocious singing. On the monitor screen – which simultaneously displayed Asian women in bikinis – incorrect and misspelled lyrics briefly scrolled down: “I am an anti-Chris / I dont know what I want / But I know how to get it / I want to destroy passer buy / I want to be an anarchy”.
I was striving for a perfect hundred score. My Korean compatriots were clapping in time and singing along. A deep black-eyed host poured me another shot of rice wine (“soju”) and stuffed a few squid tentacles in my mouth during mid-chorus. I fell off my chair, choking on the dried sea-critter flesh, and scattered a dish of silk worm pupae all over the karaoke room floor. I inappropriately stomped on the insect carcasses as I sprinted into the spirit of the song. I was serenading one of the local women with my Johnny Rotten impersonation. She didn’t know it yet, but she was being seduced. I was going to melt her romantic heart with a Sex Pistols song. I inched myself closer to her mouth for the final chorus. Our faces shined with the asymmetry of our different cultures. Her face was smooth and flat; mine was way too third-dimensional with its protruding nose, two-day stubble, and bloodshot blue eyes. She smiled as she lifted another shot glass toward my “ugly American” mouth. I raised the microphone to my lips, milked at the last few sentences, and lunged for the perfect score.
Karaoke music is an intrinsic part of Korean society. Yet, it is only a recent invention. Karaoke originated in Japan in the early 1980s. The term comes from the Japanese words “karappo” (empty) and “Okesutura” (orchestra). According to popular legend, karaoke began at a snack bar in Kobe (Kansai) when a strolling musician failed to show up for a performance. The improvising owner of the establishment played tapes in substitute while the scheduled vocalist sang, and patrons joined along in amusement. The amateur style proved to be a hit. In the Orwellian year of 1984, the industry was revolutionized by the creation of the karaoke box. Japanese previously sang to cassette tapes and the radio at home gatherings, but this proved too noisy for neighbors since houses were often constructed of thin wood. An entrepreneur from the Okayana Prefecture converted an old freight car into a private singing room and history was born. In the closed door, sound-proof room people could sing as loudly and as late as they wanted. As the new craze caught on new gimmicks were incorporated. Karaoke machines played videos so that individuals could read prompted lyrics while they sang, or gaze in a state of inebriation at skimpy clad women. Many singing rooms also employed an enigmatic system that rated the talent of each singer with a scorecard. Singing groups could compete for the highest grade. The insulated singing rooms rapidly spread across Asia. By the early 1990s even the smallest Korean neighborhoods boasted a variety of karaoke clubs.
Korean karaoke, known as “noraebang”, comes in two distinct styles. The first is the family-oriented singing room in which alcohol is prohibited. Entire families attempt to harmonize current pop songs together, teenagers bond over the latest romantic heartthrob’s production, and children run wild murdering Korean nursery rhymes. Needless to say, I try to render my knowledge of these family singing rooms to a scarce minimum. The second form of noraebang, of the variety where I am more likely to be found, are the ones that allows patron to drink alcohol. Like many expatriates, I am less inclined to make a fool out of myself while sober, thus recreational lubricants are a handy source to loosen up tonsils for the proper vocalization of the favorite Tom Jones, Beatles, or Frank Sinatra classics.
Mostly these alcohol-friendly karaoke clubs consist of whatever late-night collection of students, locals, and expatriates that drag themselves in after night festivities. However, there is also a darker side of karaoke clubs that specialize in male patronage. Female entertainers are rented for the evening, and to my knowledge their job is to enthusiastically play the tambourine, sing pop songs, pour men beer, feed them dried squid, and to clap for male performances. Of course, some karaoke clubs are fronts for prostitution but I have never witnessed this first hand. The most intimate these female entertainers have ever been with me is an occasional slow dance and non-stop compliments of my atrocious singing. Nevertheless, Korean businessmen often take these private singing rooms very seriously. Expensive bottles of whiskey are cracked open and sometimes over $1,000 is spent during a single night. Coworkers often compete to pick up the tab, to demonstrate higher status, and important business deals are often hatched between companies as their executives sing through the night. My presence has often been requested at this variety of karaoke club, however I am out of my element in the business underworld. I am an English teacher, therefore I mostly hear stories secondhand from their wives who complain during hagwon lessons that their husbands didn’t come back home until 4:00 AM.
Korean culture thrives on its singing. Whenever a group of Koreans get together you can predict that they will break into some form of song, and if soju is consumed it will be inevitably soon. The environment is rather encouraging and talent is not a pre-requisite. Even the worse of singers are prodded into multiple numbers. There are plenty of songs and types of music to choose from. A typical noraebang is equipped with a thick book full of song selections in multiple languages. Individuals take turn picking their favorites to sing in front of other guests. Korean vocal music ranges from traditional pansori (epics that last several hours long); syrupy, ballad-laden, country music (by post-Korean War celebrities such as Na-Hoon-na and Nam-jin); and a variety of western-imitator pop bands – who often display a disturbing fondness for bad English acronyms (H.O.T., S.E.S, G.O.D., BoA.).
The modern youth music, known as K-Pop, is uninhibited by western concepts such as artistic integrity. The high-gloss performers often lip-synch in concert, appear on silly television shows, and blatantly endorse products in advertisement campaigns. The Korean music industry is unhindered by the western idea that payola is somehow dishonest. The corporate star-making industry has repeatedly been caught paying bribes in trade of guest spots on television or radio programs. K-Pop has the metallic taste of industrialization. Performers are corporate assembled commodities. Singers often have little say in writing music or choosing the uniforms they dress in on stage. Manufactured boy band singers have even been prevented from having girlfriends in order to preserve the wholesome boy-next-door image. Simply put, K-Pop is corporate produced music in a can; just add water and you have an instant synthetic one-hit wonder band with a shelf life of about one year. Therefore, it is not a great leap for Koreans to embrace karaoke. The instrument rejecting, computer-programmed, artificial style is only one step away from what Korean youths listen to everyday. Karaoke reflects the post-modern reality that anybody can be defined a star – even if it is only for one evening at an insulated local singing room.
Karaoke has taken Korea by storm and its success is enjoyed by those adults that study at universities and hagwons. Korean students tend to be brilliant singers. Many ESL teachers have been coaxed into a singing room to hear student renditions of painful choices such as Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and Westlife. The English lyrics are displayed by video monitor while the student practices pronunciation. Many adults have claimed that karaoke improves their literacy rate and foreign language use. Even the most shy student in the ESL classroom seems to open up once they hit the karaoke club. I have often been surprised by students who deliver a song in impeccable English, even though they stumble with basic sentences inside of class. Even some of the most naughty Korean school children snap into shape when given the opportunity to sing during class. The trick is to persuade locals to select Beatles or Rage in the Machine songs instead of the usual choice of soft fluffy western boy bands.
The expatriates in Korea seem to have a love/hate relationship with karaoke music. In the west it is usually sung to a large audience at a nightclub. Singers take turns performing on stage while they are either awarded with applause or slammed by hecklers. Most expatriates mock it profusely. However, a strange transformation takes place after a large supply of booze has been added to the mix. It is not unusual for a dozen expatriates to stagger into a private singing room at 2:00 AM after some well-timed coaxing. There are old western traditions, such as the Irish ceilidh, in which a community gathers around a fire to tell stories or to share music together. If enough alcohol has been added the nostalgic tendency kicks in for shameful sing-a-longs. It can be intensely wonderful to hear a dozen expatriates shouting the chorus of a Nirvana or Bob Marley song together. Some of us are even very professional singers. Karaoke clubs have become user-friendly for western visitors. When I first came to Korea, in 1999, the catalogue of western songs were usually less than 4-5 pages (and the selection was mostly comprised of soft ballads, lounge crooners, and hippie classics). Today the catalogues are thick with western music from all genres. You can sing everything from Willie Nelson to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Expatriates are discovering a fondness for karaoke even though they might deny this while sober.
In Kumi City it is common for both Koreans and expatriates to crawl into a late night karaoke club together. However, we are sometimes rejected if there are members of the U.S. military with us. They have a reputation for fighting and making unwanted sexual advances toward female hosts. Therefore, soldiers are sometimes banned from admission. A military base is located in the nearby city of Waogwon and soldiers often visit Kumi on weekend excursions. The expatriate bar scene remains somewhat segregated. English teachers and foreign engineers congregate at the Psycho nightclub while soldier gravitate down the street at the S-Bar. As a typical Friday night progresses the expatriate communities begins to overlap, and those still surviving the alcohol-saturated evening tend to pool together at the end. A few weeks ago, a group of us drifted into a karaoke club. The manager refused to allow a soldier to join us. He was scheduled to depart for Iraq the following week (about a third of the troops in Korea are being redeployed to the Mid-East). The local Koreans and ESL teachers refused to budge. There isn’t exactly a lot of love lost by ESL teachers –the large majority being Canadian – over the absence of American troops, however this expatriate soldier was one of us. We had to stand our ground and defend him. The soldier was allowed inside after triumphant debate. I still visualize how deeply the soldier sang his songs of soul music.
While I tortured the Sex Pistols in front of an audience of shocked and bemused Koreans, I realized that there was an East-meets-West fusion. My gritty Punk Rock past overlapped with the soft mediocre world of Korean music. There was an odd surrealism that felt right. I was reminded of the western equivalent known as Muzak. In the 1920s, an U.S. corporation trademarked this form of unobtrusive background music that was designed to uplift factory workers and increase production. It took its name by combining the words “music” and “Kodak”. Eventually, the company employed Satan as its CEO who promptly discovered a means to inject subliminal messages into the music. The bellowing Beelzebub then possessed full power to brainwash listeners into buying shit that they didn’t need – and into voting for George W. Bush for that matter (but, that is a different story). Today, Muzak can be heard filtering into people’s brains across American shopping malls, elevators, and grocery stores. This is why, if you stand too close to some Americans, you can hear crackling static sizzle between their ears. Feeling uplifted in Korea, I was surprised to find Sex Pistols in karaoke edition. I warmly embraced my watered-down musical past. Sid Vicious is dead and Johnny Rotten never could sing anyway. It was time to make productive use of these dinosaurs. Burning up my 15 minutes of fame, I exploited their distorted music to get laid in South Korea.
I nihilistically lunged for the highest score. The South Korean karaoke room was in a state of anarchy. My dress shirt was wet with sweat and my tie crumpled into a pocket. Soju dripped down my chin and dried squid was caught between my teeth. I growled from the most animalistic center of my primal soul, “I want to be an anarchist / get pissed / destroy!”. In the final burst of energy glasses tipped over on the table and bottles shattered – sending to the floor dregs of cigarettes and lukewarm beer. My patient audience clapped in amusement and demanded encore. A perfect 100 score flashed onto the monitor screen. I had mastered karaoke and turned it into my slave. It was a true conquest. I then turned my attention to the pretty women by my side. It was time to reap the rewards of my seduction. She was busy already, however, microphone in hand, she positioned herself for her next song. I slumped into the corner of the karaoke booth. Through the heavy reverb originating from karaoke box, I could here the start of an ABBA song.