The New York Times recently ran an article about karaoke killings in the Philippines that would be comic in its absurdity were it not so sad and troubling. Karaoke is extremely popular in the Philippines, and the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” was, until recently, one of the most-frequently performed karaoke songs:
The article doesn’t give an explanation for the killings; Filipino sources quoted attribute them to everything from a Filipino intolerance for bad singing to “the country’s culture of violence, drinking and machismo” to something inherent in the song that inspires murderous rage.
I don’t know much about the Philippines, so I won’t hazard any guesses, though I will say that I’m suspicious of some of the very broad explanations given that stereotype Filipino culture–likely inaccurate and not as interesting as a more nuanced explanation. Anyway, to me this article shows the value in understanding something as seemingly-frivolous as karaoke trends. Far from being an inconsequential pastime, these incidents show that karaoke culture has some bearing on, or shows something about, what’s going on in the community around it in a way that might not otherwise be evident.
Later in the article, we start to hear about some of the context of these killings:
Defenders of “My Way” say it is a victim of its own popularity. Because it is sung more often than most songs, the thinking goes, karaoke-related violence is more likely to occur while people are singing it. The real reasons behind the violence are breaches of karaoke etiquette, like hogging the microphone, laughing at someone’s singing or choosing a song that has already been sung.
Awash in more than one million illegal guns, the Philippines has long suffered from all manner of violence, from the political to the private. Wary middle-class patrons gravitate to karaoke clubs with cubicles that isolate them from strangers.
But in karaoke bars where one song costs 5 pesos, or a tenth of a dollar, strangers often rub shoulders, sometimes uneasily. 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.
Is it about maintenance of social boundaries–from class barriers to breaches of etiquette? Is it about maintaining heterosexist masculinity in a sexually-charged environment characterized by competition? I’d be interested to know more.