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Karaoke: Vice Edition

Games are ubiquitous to all cultures. They are among the earliest forms of communication. Johann Huizinga argues that they're "older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society." Roger Caillois even argued that games are part of what civilized us, emphasizing the "importance of its role in the very development of civilization." Games are so ancient that they've been represented even on the walls of the Lascaux caves.

What historical archive we do have definitely confirms they're older than written language evidenced by a fairly large set of bone dice at the 5,000-year-old Başur Höyük burial mound in Turkey. So this record begins our archive of social games. While it's likely that games like Tag are as old as humans, older even, what we know for sure is that we've been playing games together for over 5,000 years.

And like those bone dice, games have a long history of being made out of whatever is available, from holes in clay for Manacala to sticks and rocks used as game pieces for various board games. We also make games wherever we're at, with scratched up stones of Nine Men's Morris games found everywhere the Romans went. Games have criss-crossed between cultures, back and forth, shared, changed, altered, adapted, and redefined. Chaturanga becomes Chess; Snakes and Ladders becomes Chutes Ladders; we take, we mold them to our own needs and purposes, and they become our own. And we bring to that our own baggage, our own vices.

See, our cultural conventions, or that is, western cultural conventions— and when we say west we mean western Europe as well as the US— are informed by a distinctly Puritan past. Puritans used to say things like, “An idle person is the devil’s tennis ball, which he bandies up and down with temptation till at last the ball goes out of play,” and, “Idle hands are the devil's workshop.” They believed that games and entertainment were an invitation to sin and that a good man, or woman, was one who filled their hours with work. And to some extent, how could we blame them for this? We had a long history of idle play facilitating the ruin of man civilized man.

Dice were used for games of chance, encouraging gambling and an almost mystical belief in luck and otherworldly happenstance. They were tools for the creation of means by which one man could challenge another and in doing so, by virtue of the somewhat randomness of the dice, take a risk which is both thrilling and frightening all at once. And to the loser that risk would go on to ruin families and lives, threatening institutions. Thus, games of chance maintain their social status as games of vice that threaten civilized society, even to this day.

Even when gambling wasn't involved, there were often deeper religious implications imposed upon games. Cards, which have been around since the 800s in China, which were then traded to the middle east, working their way to Egypt, and finally to the Western world during the 1400s, have almost always been associated with evil and sin. Early on, there was little distinction between card games and things like Tarot. Games were often not only associated with chance and gambling, and thus vice and sin, but also the occult, black magic, and consorting with the devil. So though games were ubiquitous, they were also considered dangerous and immoral. And the dangerous and morally questionable become forbidden when the puritans finally pillaged a place to call their own.

So it does not surprise me that the vast majority of karaoke games I've encountered have been housed within the context of vice, nor, further, that adaptations of karaoke have prominently featured elements mainstream culture would consider sinful. Every game of karaoke I've played so far had easy access to alcohol. Even at venues that allowed families to join in, so long as the restaurant was open, alcohol was still a mainstay for patrons. Rob Drew noted, "most performers needed a few doses of liquid courage before even approaching the mike*." Similarly, aside from restaurants, karaoke is always held in bars, night clubs, pool halls, and the like. Even when held at a bowling alley, they're sequestered into the "lounge" section where alcohol is served.

*Note: both mic and mike are acceptable, though in recent decades mic has become the preferred spelling for the noun while mike has been preferred for the verbification.

This, as we have seen, spreads even to the modifications for karaoke, with Kinky Karaoke and Furry Karaoke standing as rather prominent examples. But there are certainly other examples. For instance, for years, 14 in fact, Sardo's in the Los Angeles area featured a weekly gathering that had come to be called "Porn Star Karaoke." The story goes that a group of porn workers gathered for karaoke at Sardo's after being rejected from several other locations. The group simply wished for a venue to wind down and gather together outside of the particulars of their employment responsibilities. This gathering became a regular thing and people started to notice, so the venue was regularly packed, with lines out the door of people wishing to gawk at the porn stars singing often sex tinged karaoke.

Expanding on the sex work theme, Devil's Point, in Portland, OR, hosts what they call "Stripparaoke," which is apparently just what it sounds like: patrons sing while strippers strip beside them. Though, as Sarah Baird, writing for The Guardian reports, "the combined performance quickly becomes more theatrical and burlesque-like than any run-of-the-mill strip club show, with a huge bin of backstage props at dancer’s disposal." A great example of how games take from one another; it's no longer just a strip show, it's a complex piece of karaoke performance art. With stripping.

On the other end of that spectrum— though no less a vice, socially— nestled away in the Glen Eden Sun Club, a nudist resort in Corona, CA, is none other than Nudist karaoke. While this is distinctly not a sex themed event, it is nonetheless by far the most nudity filled, as Glen Eden is not clothing optional. Nudity is mandatory. So while this researcher is definitely intrigued, don't be expecting any reports from Glen Eden.

And certainly, don't expect pictures.

So, let you hair loose. Come on out to karaoke and enjoy some vice with me. As one of my former English professors, Satyam Sikha Moorty, used to say, "What are we without our vices?"

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