It was a hot summer night in July, but that didn’t deter people from heading to Tammy’s Wine Bar & Cafe, a quaint new haunt in Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood. It was also a Sunday evening, but the appeal of karaoke was greater than resting for the impending work week.
A singer sang a heartfelt cover of a song with his eyes closed, while most of the room sang. Some people moved in sync; one audience member pointed to another while speaking the lyrics; someone else had an arm slung around their buddy as they rocked together. Even local introverts participated, but with a little less enthusiasm.
Karaoke, responsible for this palpable joy, returns. Considered a high-risk activity during the pandemic, after a few karaoke parties were identified as superspreader events in Canada, karaoke was banned in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and later Quebec, and measures have been put in place in Ontario and Prince Edward Island to limit the risks posed by karaoke.
But as the provinces reopened, more venues started offering karaoke. Kathleen Barrett and Paula Haley Wilson started queer karaoke Sunday night at Tammy’s called Everybody Flirts partly in an attempt to do business in the dead of winter and partly as a night out for their friends, who all love karaoke. They are now attracting people who come from out of town to attend.
Although on the surface people were just singing and dancing to pre-recorded music, something more collective – bigger than any song – was happening.
Maybe music has always had that effect on us.
Research has shown that when we play music, dopamine and oxytocin – “feel-good hormones” – are released in our brain. Generally, our brain rewards us with dopamine when we do things that benefit our survival, such as eating or having sex. Singing together has been shown to produce this high from the actual act of communal performance rather than just the music itself.
The question scientists have tried to answer is: why would our brains reward us for participating in music? What is the evolutionary purpose of this?
There are different theories as to why music developed among humans and across cultures, but the most supported posits that music helped create social cohesion and bonding. As the groups of people living in close proximity began to increase, music was a way to bring these large groups together and work together, for example to build something like the pyramids.
The human ability to predict and follow rhythms has helped us to work consistently. “People can close their eyes and follow an internal impulse shared by everyone else,” explained Mark Whale, musician and professor of liberal studies at Humber College. “And it’s not just about keeping up. There seems to be something about the collective music that makes you immediately feel good about yourself, and the music does that immediately – breaks down the barriers – you sing the same song and you also feel that connection because what’s going on in your brain. It goes back to early childhood – music was one of the first ways we bonded with a caregiver.
Karaoke, a combination of the Japanese words “empty” and “orchestra”, reflects its origins. The idea for a karaoke machine was born when drummer and businessman Daisuke Inoue was unable to attend an event and instead sent instrumental recordings of his songs to a tape recorder for his client to to sing. After this success, Inoue then built the first karaoke machine in 1971.
Since then, karaoke has become popular around the world, spreading to North America in the 1990s, in bars and other settings – even being used as an icebreaker in classrooms, as a tool reading or to speed up and generate enthusiasm. for people learning English. Research from the University of Oxford has shown that while all group activities help bring large groups of people together, singing bonds people more quickly, building feelings of closeness faster than other activities.
This could explain the resurgence of karaoke after the pandemic shutdowns, as many of us seek to reconnect socially after long periods of isolation. Behavioral neuroscientist Amanda Wintink notes that “chronic stress damages the brain, and music provides a non-drug relaxation tool that lowers cortisol – a powerful and harmful stress hormone that has been chronically elevated during the pandemic.”
Karaoke is again an activity where joy can be created and experienced together again – something we took for granted before. A Finnish study who asked people what singing karaoke means in their lives revealed that the main reasons given were the “joy of being together”, getting away from everyday life, as well as the possibility of creating joy in the life of others.
It’s not only about regaining joy but also about saving time – connect quickly.
“What warms my heart every week is seeing all the collective joy, the confidence that the room inspires in people and being able to give every person who wants it a moment in the spotlight,” Barrett adds about the karaoke night she continues to organize. .
Karaoke can have this equalizing effect: everyone has the opportunity to go on stage and everyone is applauded after singing; everyone, just by being there, is both an audience member and a participant – even if you’re not singing, you’re still part of it. More often than not, who sings doesn’t even matter, except for the rare occasion when a particularly talented singer comes up (often followed by a collective empathy for the poor soul who comes up next).
Karaoke is also about time travel: singing the songs that kept us company when we were alone in our bedrooms as teenagers, when we tried to find answers, or at least comfort, in music; cry from grief; craving for feelings we had only seen in movies or heard in songs but not yet felt in real life; perhaps swinging as a means of escape. The songs we sing at karaoke are as much odes to ourselves as they are to the icons who originally sang them.
Karen Tongson, academic, cultural critic and author of Empty orchestra: karaoke, queer performance, queer theory, explained that “our relationship with pop music becomes nostalgic at some point in our lives and karaoke is an extension of that; we relate to the repertoires of songs from our youth. Even contemporary music deals with these same sentiments and feelings for the younger generations.
But perhaps this uniquely egalitarian, happy, and sweet experience of karaoke is unique to my own experience at Tammy’s.
Tongson argued that although “there is a lot of temptation to generalize about karaoke, it is actually a very culturally and geographically contingent practice, with a different set of rituals depending on where it is in the world and in every particular karaoke bar”. For example, Tongson explained, in Japan, when karaoke is held as a ritual between business partners, there is a hierarchy of who can sing in what order.
Thus, our own personal experience of karaoke at any given establishment is largely, in Tongson’s words, “how you feel about your relationship with a particular space.”
If karaoke reflects our relationships to time and space, then I see some great ones happening.
Perhaps karaoke’s greatest gift right now is that, after years of being so deeply and painfully aware of every moment we’ve lived in isolation – every day, hour, minute of lockdown – it can leave us lose ourselves again in an instant, a moment of connection, of joy, of something bigger than ourselves.
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