A few weeks ago, Josh Tanenbaum, my PhD advisor at UCI, sent me an email with the subject line "Furry Karaoke!" Obviously, I was stoked. I know next to nothing about the Furry community except that 1) they exist, 2) it's not about sex parties, 3) there's more to it than people simply dressing up in animal costumes. Interestingly, most of what I do know about the Furry community I've learned from the Cartoon Network series OK K.O. and Steven Universe. Honestly, cartoons are awesome.
To add to this awesome night of cultural exploration, Josh connected me to Calvin Liu, a former Master's student of his, now located at USC for his PhD work. That work, as it happens, involves furry communities. Much as I am engaged in participant observation of various karaoke communities (which are still, at this point, undefined), Calvin engages with the furry community to observe and analyze. So we exchanged details and planned to meet, to which Calvin told me quite simply, "Just look for the guy in the hoodie with a ginger cat puppet."
I arrived to the party at Executive Suite with Lauren, a friend and social scientist with expertise in applied cultural anthropology from Cal State: Long Beach. My background in sociology is a bit lacking, so I hoped Lauren could provide some additional perspective on the evening (she did). I often attend karaoke with a friend or two, as I find myself feeling... out of place when I'm on my own. Something about observing from the back of a bar while alone screams "creep!" Thankfully, tonight I had a great partner with the perfect academic background. And, as it turns out, she could sing, too!
Now, Executive Suite is a bar with three floors. It's actually not a bar, but instead a "nightclub" which means there are some additional rules concerning attendees' ability to exit and re-enter the premises. The middle floor, and entrance to the building, houses billiards, a bar, and the karaoke setup. The karaoke was KJ'd by Cole, who had a closely shaved head and wore a lovely pink dress. The top floor has a bar and a large dance floor complete with stripper poles in the corners. The dance floor was a popular location, both for dancing and observing. It featured comfortable booths all around the dance floor, and more tables near the bar. The bottom floor seemed to be some sort of staging area. There wasn't much room, and it split into several smaller spaces with doors, but seemed organized around providing a space for people to change costumes, etc. On this particular night, this area was devoted to providing individuals a space to change into their fursuits.
So, what's a fursuit? As Calvin writes in his Master's thesis, a fursuit is "a mascot-like costume of an anthropomorphic or zoomorphic being." A fursuit can be a significant part of your fursona, "an anthropomorphic or zoomorphic persona." However, it's not the only way to have a fursona. After all, those suits are expensive (think, thousands) and not everyone can commit that kind of money. Instead, many attendees to the Tail Party simply wore hairbands with ears attached, a tail hanging from the waist of their pants, a backpack in the shape of their animal, or even something as simple as a badge, worn around the neck, with a picture of their fursona. The pictures often seemed to be custom made cartoon-like characters. Calvin, as he noted when organizing the meet up with me, wore a cat puppet on his hand and often interacted with people through his puppet.
Thus these furries are a community of people who in some way or another identify with their furry persona. Engaging with this fursona in a material manner "create[s] a liminal space, which is a congealing of agency between participants, the fursuiter, [...] and the spectators." There's a lot here that feels and sounds like the magic circle... but I hesitate to talk about this community as if it were a community of play. There are some interesting similarities and overlaps between furries and the BDSM community; in fact, at Kinky Karaoke there was a man in a tiger fursuit and a girl with wolf ears and tail, and at the Tail Party, there was a significant group of "Pups," one of which informed me was a BDSM focused group of furries who wear leather and dog masks. So much alike, I came to realize that while play was an important part of ritual for the kink community, it was not a community of play; the play was simply one small portion of a larger, overarching lifestyle. So, too, with furries.
As such, Furry Karaoke had some of the same unique trappings as Kinky Karaoke, in that both integrated the particulars of their community into karaoke play, with songs about animals featured heavily, people roleplaying their fursonas while singing, etc. Largely, it was just a game of karaoke that happened to be attended by a community of people who had really just gathered to catch up. In many ways, it felt more like an office party. Most of the attendees gathered outside the front doors to chat; I suspect this was in no small part due to the heat of the fursuits. Karaoke attendance was smaller than dancing attendance which was smaller than outdoor chit-chat. And yet, at the same time, sometimes a few individuals in a fursuit would walk on stage, grab the mic, shove it into their fanged mouths, and blast out an epic song from Lion King. And it just felt... so much cooler. As if it were meant to be. As if that was exactly how karaoke should be, for just a moment.
Lauren and I continued to chat with attendees during the evening, asking what often turned out to be basic questions, though they were certainly fascinating to us (and the furries were more than willing to engage). Are you a dragon? Does your mouth move? Why are you a knight? What do you mean you're protecting the dragon? Wait, you can be mythological creatures? That dude's wearing a unicorn head! That one is some sort of fur covered dragon-shark hybrid! It was an evening of surreal awesomeness, as if we had stumbled upon theme park characters on a night out. This was a community at play, but in no particularly distinct way than any other community when playing karaoke, or dancing on a stripper pole. This is simply an opportunity for cultural exchange.
Karaoke, a bridge between communities?