Every month or so, my friends somewhat suspiciously gather in dimly-lit, underground rooms. The cigarette smoke is thick in the air. Empty bottles and beer-stained serviettes litter the low tables. It could be the headquarters of some nefarious criminal organization. But the only murder on the agenda in these dingy subterranean lairs is of songs.
Multiculturalism has brought us many wonderful benefits, but few rank next to the ability to croon Frank Sinatra standards while being accompanied by crappy 1980s-style synthesisers. So Australians have adopted Japan’s favourite hobby no less enthusiastically than we’ve taken up sushi and Astroboy. And where the right to perform an even rougher version of ‘Khe Sanh’ than Barnesy’s original was once restricted to dodgy pub covers bands, now thanks to the magic of karaoke, anyone can conjure up the long-term psychological damage of Chisel’s fictional Vietnam veteran – and in so doing, cause short-term psychological damage to anyone who’s forced to listen.
Karaoke prowess is so important in parts of Asia that not only will the machine mark the accuracy of your performance, but people tend to get training for it. Apparently in the business world, the ability to bash out a killer version of ‘Hey Jude’ counts as a big plus, rather than the huge minus I’d have thought it would be. It may well be that Alexander Downer’s whale-like performances at regional political meetings are doing Australia’s reputation irreparable damage. But if Labor gets up and makes Peter Garrett Foreign Minister, the world of karaoke diplomacy had better watch out.
I’ve been in the first-floor bar at the Mandarin Club, for example, and watched the most heartfelt public renditions of sugary Canto-pop love ballads, sung brilliantly and with utter conviction. To my cynical ears, these kinds of performances are both wonderful and highly amusing.
But Australians have developed their own unique approach to karaoke, though, and as with so much of our culture, it’s all about taking the piss. When Aussies take to the mike, they mock these genuine expressions of emotion. One perennial favourite is ‘Wind Of Change’ – a truly cheesy song from the end of the Cold War, with one of the worst whistling solos in the entire history of recorded music. I’ve heard it sung dozens of times, but never, shall we say, with the same respect for the momentousness of the end of communism that The Scorpions had originally intended. Bon Jovi’s ‘Blaze of Glory’ and the heartfelt works of Richard Marx and Michael Bolton are often given the same treatment.
The real beauty of karaoke is that it simply doesn’t matter how good you are at it. Even the most tuneless of renditions can have a charm of its own. And sure, a truly brilliant singer can shine, obviously – but thanks to imperfect equipment and the continent of Asia’s overfondness for the digital echo effect, no-one ever sounds all that good. Karaoke is a great leveller. The only thing you can seriously get wrong is taking yourself seriously.
Whether you prefer to croon ’50s classics in a poor imitation of Robbie Williams’ poor imitations of the originals, or belt out mid-1980s hair-metal schlock (and there isn’t much else on many venues’ playlists), it’s a brilliant way to relax with friends. And for all the cultural difference that divides Australia with much of Asia, there is one thing we truly have in common: beer. Japanese and Australians alike love nothing more than a nice cold inhibition-lowering lager. And if you’re going to embarrass yourself in front of your friends after a few too many, better to have a microphone in your hand than anything else. And that is ultimately, the real beauty of karaoke.