This NYT story, warning that singing “My Way” in a Filipino karaoke bar will get you killed, has been making the rounds because it’s so delightfully weird. And it is! And you should read it — though the article does half-seriously dangle the possibility of a “karaoke curse” without following up, which is disappointing.
It seems to me that this sort of urban legend quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If everyone knows that “My Way” is an “arrogant” choice that “covers up your failures,” as one of the article’s sources explains, and that it often leads to trouble, anyone who decides to sing it must be looking for a fight. It’s the same principle that has propelled machismo mystique from Bill Sykes to the Trouble Boys. The man who knows who (or what) rules the bar he’s stepping into, and decides to challenge him (or them, or it) anyway, must have a hell of a lot of chutzpah — and is agreed to deserve whatever is coming to him.
But by far the most fascinating passage of the article is buried in the middle, and I’m worried it might get overlooked because gender is much less fascinating than urban legends (well, to most people who aren’t me):
A subset of karaoke bars with G.R.O.’s — short for guest relations officers, a euphemism for female prostitutes — often employ gay men, who are seen as neutral, to defuse the undercurrent of tension among the male patrons. Since the gay men are not considered rivals for the women’s attention — or rivals in singing, which karaoke machines score and rank — they can use humor to forestall macho face-offs among the patrons.
I can’t shed any light on the idea that gay men are ideally situated to defuse fights between straight men, although it’s fascinating and definitely absent from American culture. (Here, “neutrality” usually casts gay men as go-betweens between men and women, or allows them to help women be more feminine. The cultural assumption, neatly deconstructed here by Phoebe Maltz, is that gay and straight men have nothing to say to each other.) Nor do I have any idea how the heck a karaoke machine can score a patron’s performance — everyone who’s ever been to a karaoke bar in the States knows it’s more about stage presence than pitch accuracy, and it’s hard to imagine how “My Way” would have this kind of baggage in the Philippines if the same weren’t true there.
But even though the article doesn’t explain how, exactly, success at taking a G.R.O. upstairs is related to karaoke prowess, it’s clear that “competing for attention” is somehow important — making karaoke, at least theoretically, a form of “peacocking”, to borrow a term from Conor’s friends in the pickup artist community. (The article doesn’t offer any clues as to whether it’s considered a good way to pick up women who aren’t prostitutes — let alone whether it works — but plenty of machismo-signaling things like this have a reputation that exceeds logic or efficacy.)
American karaoke, on the other hand, is completely desexualized: firmly in the social “friend zone.” In fact, a story in today’s Times leads with a scene of a group of girls in a Chapel Hill bar, singing along to Taylor Swift because there are no boys in sight. It’s not karaoke, but you get the point.
Furthermore, we don’t imagine men performing for women when thinking either of soliciting prostitutes or picking up chicks. In the former scenario, a man is presented with an array of women (for example, in one of the most prominent variations, during their acts at a strip club), then chooses one to go into the back room with. In the latter — which I wouldn’t be bringing into this if it weren’t disconcertingly analogous — men pick a particularly impressive woman among the dozens crowding the dancefloor (see also “Yeah” by Usher:, “Fire Burning” by Sean Kingston, or dozens of other club-jam megahits), offer to buy her a drink and chat her up as she drinks it. Women perform for men, collectively; men choose a woman and perform for her. Even pickup scripts that don’t involve dancing, like those used by pickup artists, require the man to choose his target first. And the few scenes I can think of in movies or TV shows in which karaoke is used for romantic purposes make it perfectly obvious that the performance is intended for one woman (generally a woman) alone; everyone else has suddenly become collateral, even voyeurs. There’s something refreshing in the idea of a man “putting himself out there” for any woman in the bar to assess. (I know that the sort of aggressive machismo the article describes is bad for both men and women in a lot of other ways, and I don’t mean to endorse it as a superior alternative — and, again, I have no idea how much control G.R.O.‘s actually have in determining with whom they go upstairs. I just wanted to point out this particular side effect.)
At the same time, the Filipino karaoke pickup is of a piece with the American club pickup. Men perform for women by opening their mouths; women perform for men by showing off their bodies. At least since karaoke uses someone else’s lyrics, it doesn’t pretend that a man can always rely on his superior and impressive wit, as most pickup scripts here do (though in both cases his money seals the deal). But I’d really love to see an alternative pickup script where women speak before they’re spoken — or sung — to.
This isn’t to say that it’s unheard of or frowned upon for a woman to approach a man at a bar or club, or that men’s bodies aren’t an important factor in their success with women (an absurd contention in a post- Jersey Shore world, anyway). I’m not challenging anyone to think of counterexamples — I can think of plenty! But cultural scripts aren’t about the only thing you can do, they’re about the first thing you think of, because the first thing you think of is what any alternatives are imagined and evaluated against.