Karaoke As A Mental Health Program


I have gone with my beloved husband in the last couple of weeks to a few venues so clearly classified as “dive bars” that I have searched in vain for a depth gauge on the wall. The treasure we seek – karaoke. These establishments are not the province of the landed gentry, and we are generally as out-of-place as a fish in a cloud.  The treasures we find unperformed songs in the depth of confused directories whose organization defies even an amateur cryptologist (me).

As an inveterate researcher, my efforts to find out how the phenomenon could be illuminated by applied psychology brought me surprisingly little. This is not the kind of thing where we expect to find a lot in the way of heavily-financed double-blind placebo-controlled trials. Speculation by professionals does exist. It is difficult to miss the fantasy aspect.  I do not know anybody who has not fantasized about being a rock star.  You stand up there and no matter how good or bad you are, you get some recognition, maybe even a little applause.  In other of life’s endeavors, people do not often applaud adults, so any moment of this sort of thing feels like a gift of a fantasy-moment.

Opportunities for self-expression are few in this world.  The dedication of a song sung on the radio has become a little more personalized.  You can tell someone you love them, even with public witnesses, by singing to them how much you love them in front of a crowd.  You can express real emotion. The singer wants the validation of the crowd.  Most crowds will validate.  I have known people to sing with records in front of the mirror.  The validating crowd makes it more real. The idea of a singer making a performance animated, original or enjoyable is cute — and naive. What we see are the pseudo-professionals, often singing the song as if it is an obligation, sometimes for a friend’s video camera.  Never with joy nor originality, but with a slavish reproduction of notes that cannot be distinguished from some original recording. “I am as good as the one who recorded that” is the assertion unspoken.  A silly one, as it was original for the one who first recorded it, not for the karaoke singer, not ever. Okay, so I finally found at least one neurophysiological study. A self-conscious behavioral task — Yeah, that’s karaoke all right — correlated with some kind of diminished fronto-temporal function. Used in rehabilitation of mental patients— perhaps a little closer to my heart. Anyone who really knows my husband knows that he can really sing, like professionally type, from 50’s rocker to missing member of the rat pack.  He can bring down a house, whether or not they know what to expect. Me, I do obscure things in foreign languages mostly on key.  From “Volare” in Italian to  “La Vie en Rose” in French –familiar to the audience but distant, not of them.  Doing our melodic thing, he croons, I usually smile. With them but not of them, unlike the country singers who work studiously and deliberately like their recordings at home.

Yes, you can tell a lot  about somebody by watching karaoke – you don’t have to have a psychology degree.  Everybody has enough life experience to interpret what the performer is living-out up there on the stage and in the spotlight.

And best of all – the performer is having fun and free of shame.

That’s what I call “mental health.”

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