Bad Singing, Karaoke, SEM

My abstract, “Bad Singing and Karaoke Virtuosity: Failure and Success at the Providence Boombox,” has been accepted for the upcoming Society for Ethnomusicology conference in Washington D.C.

Here’s the abstract I submitted:

The rise of karaoke communities around the world demonstrates how the performance of popular music in local scenes involves particularized aesthetic ideas of virtuosity, musicality, and performance success. In Providence, Rhode Island, patrons of the Boombox karaoke bar express a seemingly paradoxical idea: virtuosity in karaoke stems from “bad singing.” From participants’ perspectives, “bad singing” generally refers to singing that appears quite obviously off-pitch, off-tempo, out of sync with the lyrical prompt, or in some way at odds with the techniques of formally trained singers. Singers view karaoke as a democratic music practice, where all may demonstrate an appreciation for popular music. “Bad singing” serves as evidence for inclusiveness of the community, since “bad singers” do not need any formal training, acquired skills, or natural talent to participate. More importantly, “bad singing” demonstrates the virtuosity of the “bad” singer, by revealing how one can use emotion, desire, and passion to overcome a lack of talent, skill, or ability. The inability to sing well actually confirms one’s amateur status and enables one to perform a sincere emotional investment in the song. In other words, “bad singing” employs failure to achieve success. Drawing on year-long fieldwork, this paper analyzes how “bad singing” serves as a form of virtuosity in this community. My work contributes to growing body of research on themes—virtuosity, ability, failure, participatory culture, and technology—within the fields of ethnomusicology, American studies, popular music studies, and performance studies.