DAVID BOWIE KARAOKE
Maybe the Most Appropriate Tribute?
by Andy Livingston
On a Friday night in Baltimore, one club known for its adventurous bookings decided to unveil a karaoke night. A usual attraction for a crowd on a weekend, the only thing that separated this karaoke night from many others was that it focused only on David Bowie.
The back wall to the stage was converted to show the lyrics for the audience to participate as well as the singer and many songs devolved into group sing-alongs as the night went on and the drinks went deep. People were enthusiastic, even into repeating songs and I wondered if this karaoke singularity could be attempted with another singer. Is the diversity and character driven performance of David Bowie enough to break up the monotony of a single performer?
It would be hard to adopt another popular singer, say Michael Jackson, because people would fry themselves attempting to step up the showmanship and voice of Jackson. The fever pitch of sexuality of Prince could turn the dance floor into debauched humping before an hour is gone. Outside of say, the first 15-20 songs of groups like Queen, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, etc., does anyone really want to get into deep cuts? Karaoke tosses aside the obscure for a familiarity that brings out someoneís confidence. Itís really not about looking cool.
The diversity in song choices meant you could not only go for Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke and the Goblin King, but even pull out Aladdin Sane, the coke-and-milk Berlin Trilogy era and the early folky Bowie.
Although there were no parameters set up, the early attendees of the night kicked off with early Bowie, "The Man Who Sold the World" was probably the second song, and another softer song with extra purple language passed over the screen. The song was unfamiliar to me and the lyrics laughable when you saw them drip behind the stage. A crust punk looking guy took the stage to "Fashion", while a casual guy who sat by the bar ripped into a version of "Young Americans", turning his back on the screen for the last verse in the best performance of the night. A woman who did a co-ed version of "TVC 15" stopped to chat and I complimented her on the song choice. We talked about the early performers and discussed the over the top lyrics of early Bowie. Guys who you could tell used to be really into industrial (stern haircuts, jeans tucked into boots) went through multiple rounds of "Iím Afraid of Americans" while stomping on the stage. "Suffragette City" is never known for its lyrical power, but seeing the angsty scrawl on the screen waiting for the payoff of "Wam Bam Thank You Maíam!" is any wonder we put up with that song at all. With the karaoke everyone seemed to shine on their David Bowie opening point. And with Bowieís expanse, the openings are wide.
In 1934, Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin wrote "Discourse in the Novel," a paper that explores the coexistence of varieties in a single language in novels. Bakhtin called this coexistence heteroglossia and said it was a focal point of power within the novel. The coexistence and conflict between the different types of speech including clashes between the speech of characters, narrators and even the author were the foundation of Bahktinís theory.
Even if you didnít know about heteroglossia, itís easy to see those traits prevalent in David Bowie songs. Although he slips into characters frequently, he often acts as the narrator, floating just outside the character, out of first person narrative, while seconds ago was speaking for the character. Bowie pit the language of narrator and character while playing both of the roles, sometimes simultaneously, routinely.
So it makes perfect sense that Bowie is used for karaoke, which adds an additional layer to heteroglossia by then being another participant in the type of speech, a character playing another character playing another character. And if they were an especially adept karaoke performer, throwing in winks and nods and adding a narrator to boot. It only made the listeners of the karaoke night even more active participants, knowing what we know in our hearts about Ziggy Stardust or David Bowie or the Goblin King and knowing what we see on the stage.
Around the fifth or sixth rendition of "Space Oddity" or "Rebel Rebel" or "Heroes," the power of the metaphor starts to run thin. The tension of character speech on top of character speech being commented on by narrator speech is a lot to parse on a Friday night when people are trying to unwind. Karaoke is a tool for fun and mild embarrassment, not a weapon for obscure literary theory.
In a way, Bowie captured the primal feeling of performance and the desire to be someone else, even if for a few minutes, in performing a character. By using the language of a narrator, you have the ability to keep one foot grounded and distance yourself from getting too lost into the mask of the character, while keeping your wits about you as the author. And the same thing can be said for karaoke as a whole. Before the stage, youíre a casual guy at the bar, a crust punk, a girl really wanting to sing "TVC 15", but knowing youíre the character in the song and the author of its performance keeps you aware that you donít sink too much into that night. Even David Bowie warned about losing yourself.
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