Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom! The Psychology of Karaoke

I love karaoke! And (a little too much information coming up) I perpetually have a kind of personal zeitgeist playlist in my head which changes from time to time depending on my mood, circumstances, and personal objectives. I recognise this is perhaps odd and, I reassure you, there are other things in my mind too. And I tend not to go for maudlin, depressive numbers, even if that is where my mood is at, because for me karaoke (and music) serves a performative and protective purpose; I use music to pursue a positive psychological destination or reinforce a plan of action, not to wallow. My karaoke set list, at any given time, reflects what I want to say and do to bolster myself as well as what I want the world to see. Karaoke, you see, is all about performance.

As someone who has been immersed in music a lot of my life – whether it was orchestras, choirs, or fiddling around on the piano – if I hear music I want to get involved. I like gigs, but want to sing along. A little more too much information: I’d probably get just as involved in a DJ Ötzi gig as I would in one of The Cure’s marathon sets… I defy anyone to deny that Ötzi’s “up tempo-ed” performance video of Sweet Caroline isn’t a marvellous, beautiful, empowering, embodiment of all that karaoke should be (plus mum’s-night-out dancers AND lost hikers begging someone to call search and rescue!)

Music can also maintain me (or perhaps distract me) when I need it. For instance, I was never a runner. Runners get blistered feet and dodgy knees, and especially long-distance running does not suit a six foot four, hyper-mobile dilettante with Rodney Trotter bone structure. Anyway you can get pretty much everywhere faster by car.

Someone once justified their running obsession to me (and it is, in extreme cases, only one level below cycling in the “sports disorders” taxonomy) by suggesting there was a primal drive to run, to escape potential predators or other assailants. I doubt this, and even if it true for some I think I can trace my heritage back along a branch of the phylogenetic tree that would opt for camouflage rather than flight in such situations. So at school, during cross-country runs, to keep me going, I’d go through a song in my head. Actually, given that I was rarely posting a respectable time, I’d often get through an entire album. It had the advantage of keeping my pace to a rhythm although I could (and often did) transpose the score to a 2/4 time. Coincidentally, it was out jogging that Bjørn Ulveaus said he came up with most of his songs, notably, Take a Chance on Me: I am in good company then. (Benny was not a jogger.)

Inevitably, someone has researched the psychology of karaoke even though this is the sort of frivolity that gets a desk rejection from the likes of MRC or ESRC (although, truly, I think funders could do with dialling down the snootiness). There are predictable “singing boosts mental health” findings which align with a lot of what we are finding out about the benefits of group artistic activity in promoting positive mental health. Such activity works not just because it gets you out, but because it is fun. Add in to that the psychological benefits of collaboration, engagement and (I’d argue) pursuing a collective goal (harmonising) and you have a good recipe for social prescribing.

There’s also the freedom from inhibition, and the challenge that public performance brings. Karaoke feels especially effective with good acquaintances rather than close friends. Never mind that bad singers typically don’t know how bad they are, it is very much the taking part that counts. So monotonic Mariah Carey impersonators who are inhibited should not feel obliged to opt for Eminem or Status Quo instead, just to avoid transgressing social mores, because if you’re with the right people no one is treating this as an audition for The Voice. (If you do find yourself in a karaoke booth with Tom Jones, Will I Am and the others ones, expect a dull evening).

And then there’s the song choice, which is the meat in the sandwich of the karaoke experience. It is a personal choice, the message of the performance. The message might be geared to the audience or the event, or even just an impulsive splurge of self-expression.

Many people have signature tracks – one song that is their song, that they encapsulates who they are (or what they want to project) – but I have in mind a changing list of karaoke set pieces for specific events. Perhaps it is right that this list changes as life progresses, proceeds and retreats (as it sometimes does). This is a song set for me, but also for an audience: it is the act of imagining that I am performing it, to an audience of friends, acquaintances or colleagues, that is sustaining because it is a form or release or self-expression that is often difficult to do. Changing life, and different situations, mean the set list changes to integrate a new insight, realisation or objective.

I have three songs in mind right now, but I am not going to tell you what they are. One day they will change and perhaps, maybe, one day I’ll end up with a signature track that’s positive, personally meaningful, and doesn’t require an audience? But, until then, I’ll stick with shamelessly upbeat songs to play in my personal karaoke room. Boom, boom, boom, boom…