Karaoke Rage

When innocent singing turns violent.

Does karaoke lead to violence?

Last November, an inebriated 24-year-old with the woefully apt name of Kyle Drinkwine was found by police in the back of a Wisconsin alley, his hands covered in blood. According to testimony compiled by the Smoking Gun, Drinkwine had spent the evening unwinding at Emma’s Bar, a local watering hole that was hosting a karaoke night. Shortly after performing an Eminem song, he allegedly became so enraged by another patron’s version of “Holy Diver”—the 1983 anthem by heavy-metal patriarch Ronnie James Dio—that he assaulted the singer and his friend and fled when police arrived. “This had started … over one’s ability to sing karaoke,” notes the arrest report, which reads like a Mike Judge novella.

Drinkwine’s sad, stupid plight wasn’t an isolated incident: In August 2007, a Seattle man was assaulted onstage during a karaoke rendition of Coldplay’s “Yellow,” while last December, a San Diego man encored his karaoke set by walking toward the crowd and attacking an audience member. And in Asia, there’s been a string of karaoke-bar stabbings and shootings, including a horrific incident in Bangkok in which eight amateur singers were murdered by their neighbor, reportedly due in part to his hatred of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

As someone who’s performed, miserably, at karaoke bars worldwide—including a three-day stint aboard a Finnish “karaoke cruise ship”—I was perplexed by these attacks. After all, I’ve survived countless moments of sanity-needling karaoke without ever once resorting to violence, even when it would have been justified; there’s no greater example of self-restraint than sitting in a sweltering Bangkok beer garden, watching a drunken Polish man deflower Starship’s “We Built This City.” In 10 years and seven countries, the only karaoke-related tension I’ve ever experienced took place in a Long Island bar, where a stewing townie grimaced all the way through my overly emphatic version of Van Halen’s “Jump.” (I left shortly afterward, so as not to give him the chance to beat me with a garnish tray.)

One explanation for this uptick in karaoke rage is that karaoke bars bring together several socially combustible elements. Fill a room with 30 or so exhibitionists, ply them with alcohol and wireless microphones, and it’s only a matter of time before all the forced interaction results in conflict. Indeed, when the first karaoke machines were exported from Japan in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, many communities in Asia and India shunned the devices, fearing they’d attract undesirables. Marketers responded by convincing local educators that karaoke could be used to improve literacy—or, more ingeniously, by pitching American prison wardens on the idea of using karaoke to soothe gang-related animosity.

Not sure how that worked out. But if all it took to instigate violence were excessive booze, egos run amok, and an open forum, every wedding reception and trivia-night contest in America would end in a Farkable brawl. What’s interesting about these karaoke attacks is that they sometimes come down to little more than song choice: The attacker either hates the song to the point of physical rage or loves the song with such fervor that he or she will lash out in its defense. So the reasons why karaoke performances sometimes work up to a violent crescendo have less to do with how we interact with one another and more with how we interact with music.

Think back to the records you loved during high school, that four-year labor camp of self-actualization: Some may still resonate today, but a lot of them sound dated and naïve because you deployed them mostly to help establish some desired persona, whether it be rebel, rake, or faux-poet.I listened to a lot of noisy, caustic music in my senior year, even though I’d attended an Indigo Girls concert only two years prior. At the time, I regarded a slight of my favorite bands—the ones whose logo I’d pinned to my jacket or written on my notebook—as a slight of me.

Historically, this music-as-proxy phase wanes after adolescence. But our musical preferences now define our personalities in almost every aspect of our day-to-day, presumably grown-up lives. Each ringtone, each embedded MP3 player, each customized ZIP-file mix is an unsubtle broadcast to those around us, letting them know who we really are. (Few artists have fostered this quite like Beyoncé, whose career was built on to-the-point self-declarations—”Diva,” “Irreplaceable,” “Beautiful Liar”—that happen to sound fantastic even when crackling from a cell-phone.) Band-logo patches and concert T’s have been replaced by Facebook widgets and custom iPod sleeves.

And, it appears, replaced by our karaoke selections. Granted, not every karaoke performance is a three-minute glimpse of the id. But often, songs are chosen for what they convey about the singer, either through lyrics (Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll”), through attitude (anything by Kid Rock or Pink), or through some unspoken yet widely understood subtext: One of the reasons Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” is an extremely popular karaoke song is not that the singer necessarily likes big butts—though this could be true—but because the singer wants to be known as wacky and carefree. I’ve seen people bond, flirt, and even reconcile with one another through song choices. So if karaoke songs really are projections of our personalities, it’s fitting that these personalities sometimes clash, too.

But why karaoke bars? Aren’t there slightly more dignified locations in which to cold-cock a stranger? While it would be foolish to downplay the effects of alcohol, it also certainly doesn’t help that so many aspiring singers tend to practice on the Internet, where even the most vicious criticism is tempered by anonymity or distance or both. As a result, karaoke performers are often unaccustomed to the sort of live-action cultural criticism that can arise from the front row at 2:15 a.m. on a Saturday, which is why so many of these karaoke-bar attacks (at least, the ones in America) are sudden and ill-conceived, minor tiffs that quickly get out of control. No one seems to quite know what they’re doing. They’re amateurs, in every sense of the word.

Sadly, I fear that these incidents are only going to increase in the coming years: Thanks in part to the popularity of American Idol, more bars are hosting karaoke nights now, and the jockeying for slots has grown increasingly competitive. The raw nerves and idiosyncratic personalities that help make karaoke bars so appealing are also what make them so volatile. This may be bad for bar owners, but if fear of karaoke rage helps keep the song queue to a minimum, it’s great news for needy exhibitionists such as myself.