IV. The Empty Orchestra and the Drowsy Chaperone
“Karaoke makes no one marginal,” write Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco in their recent book Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon (Reaktion). As opposed to the godlike quality of voiceover (or in-the-know DVD commentaries), then, karaoke (literally “empty orchestra”) sounds a little like democracy. (On Broadway, the musical The Drowsy Chaperone is introduced and narrated by “Man in Chair,” a devout fan of the gleefully formulaic ersatz-’20s entertainment we’re about to see—but essentially a spectator like us.)
Xun and Tarocco turn up some curious facts (Japanese magazines feature karaoke etiquette columns; “90 percent of Filipinos are good singers,” according to one leader) as they dutifully chart the phenomenon’s rise worldwide, but too many dull anecdotes clog the narrative, and the authors lack Dolar’s incisive way with connections. Karaoke is both exhaustive and already out of date. It doesn’t cover the hypersuccess of a program like American Idol (essentially karaoke to the millionth power), which has found a strange mutation in two new television programs, The Singing Bee (CBS) and Don’t Forget the Lyrics! (Fox). Unlike Idol, these shows emphasize knowledge over emotion; contestants need to sing the right words to chestnuts of various genres.
Passionate vocalizing adds entertainment value—but then so does out-of-tune wailing. Neither determines whether you take home the purse. (You could probably just recite the lyrics.) A flubbed line in Idol can be salvaged by inspired improvisation, but on these shows you get sent home. Interestingly, though these contests would seem to eliminate the hierarchy of voice over writing (which [Mladen] Dolar asserts in his “Voice of Ethics” chapter [in A Voice and Nothing More]), in the end they maintain the status quo. Though logically the challenge would be the same if competitors wrote out the words to “Fortunate Son” or “Have You Seen Her?,” few televised challenges outside of Final Jeopardy have a written component. The title of The Singing Bee alludes to its spelling-bee format, but this reminds us that a spelling bee isn’t simply a spelling test. The vocal component is theater—but theater is the only thing worth watching.
When words elude the contestants of Don’t Forget the Lyrics!, they try to commune with the collective memory by riding the rhythm, searching for the great jukebox in the sky or their own internalized iTunes playlist.
—Deleted from "Guided by Voice-Overs," Modern Painters, December 2007/January 2008