I Am Citizen SingStar

We shuffle in like factory workers on the end of our shift, coming in from the driving rain. Our hats and scarves are drenched; the bar is empty, save a few die-hards braving the grim night. Disaster; the DJ hasn’t turned up and the karaoke night that was supposed to bring us all together is a bust. Without him and his machine, it’s just a dive.

Twenty minutes later, the remnants of the party are in my lounge room and I am kicking over my furniture, bellowing a demand that nobody “forget the joker,” halfway through the break for Motorhead’s Ace of Spades. Blood swells and capillaries twist and pop under the strain to hit every pitch at full volume. I am not good at this game, but I am great at this song. No points are awarded for exceeding municipal noise laws through your own body, but nobody will get the ringing out of their ears. Tonight I am Lemmy. Tonight I am George Michael. Tonight I am Rihanna. For three brilliant minutes at a time, I am Citizen SingStar.

While we wonder about the impact the increasingly successful Wii is having on game developers, SingStar‘s commercial and cultural success has been nothing short of seismic. For many, the PS2 is “the SingStar machine,” especially in Europe and Australasia. Anybody who tells you it’s not a real game is a liar and possibly a Communist – it just rewards bravery over everything else. They are jealous because they can’t sing. They will tell you they prefer games with good graphics and gameplay. You just have to tell them your voice causes self-shadowing of a different kind and you can croon “Wicked Game” perfectly.

On the verge of the PS3’s SingStar release, it’s worth taking stock of the phenomenon and tracing the aftershocks that have left some of us scrambling for the microphones every time we see a music video.

The Empty Orchestra
Commonly attributed to Japanese drummer Daisuke Inoue‘s inventions in the early 1970s, karaoke (literally meaning “the empty or void orchestra”) was his term for a singalong device that played his own songs for a ¥100 coin. But Inoue’s invention wasn’t the first of its kind; technology had already begun to intersect with club culture a few years before hand. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, popular house bands in Germany and France would have nights without singers in which audience members could stand in to sing the classics – eventually creating lyric sheets with simple notation to help the brave souls navigate the thorny realms of actual sheet music. However, it was Inoue’s machines that deserve the bulk of the credit; leveraging the Japanese adoration for ritual embarrassment was natural enough, but his decision to move from classic songs and his own recordings to more popular music is what made karaoke a household name. Unfortunately for Inoue, though, he failed to patent his device, and the profits from karaoke machines now flow to a number of enterprising types in the Philippines, Korea and the United States.

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Karaoke’s impact has been monumental – certainly in Japan and south Asia; a generation finds it second nature to put themselves at the front of the world’s biggest pop hits. Consider the fact that around the world, karaoke bars nestled in the Little Tokyos and Chinatowns become cultural fondue pots, as people of all shades and stripes come together under one roof to butcher Bon Jovi. World peace is possible. It will just be hell to listen to.

Playing with the Mic Stand
There have been a number of ill-fated attempts to coalesce the karaoke phenomena with computer game consoles, most of which have disappeared without so much as a Wikipedia entry to mark their burial. And while Konami’s Karaoke Revolution games were phenomenally successful, for sure, and have spawned dozens of spin-off discs of their own, some central element was still clogging up the drains. Namely, it still looked like a computer game. SingStar jettisoned 3-D characters for 2-D, and put us in the thinnest possible frame of reference. You want to be a star, here’s your apartment. Everybody and everything is stylish and cosmopolitan and urbane; Ikea drawn on a Wacom tablet. The use of lithe, big-eyed, big-teethed figures to foreground the karaoke experience is more than marketing tinsel; they connect the game’s image to popular images of cafes and cartoon characters. They are inoffensive, almost bland but never boring, pseudo-Bratz. Perfect for selling the music industry on videogames.

SingStar‘s genius was not to reinvent the wheel but instead to give it a colorful and friendly hubcap. The first thing you see when you start playing is footage – as in, captured images and sounds of human beings – playing SingStar. Imagine firing up Halo 3 to find yourself watching footage of Little Johnny Blastpants swearing at people over Xbox Live. You don’t want to see it; you’ll be doing it soon enough for yourself. The gaming contract with SingStar is a very different beast; we need to be told and reminded that we’ll be having raw human fun devoid of the bric-a-brac of gaming culture. So it’s perfect that your first point of contact amounts to a TV ad, because SingStar is an advertising campaign. It doesn’t have one merely attached to it; we are quilted into the product and marketed to each other. It’s our soaring notes, screw-ups and dropped notes that build the idea that we can nail a song, finally, one day. Don’t be fooled into thinking bravery is a gamer instinct; its a lot harder to sing Rihanna and entertain a roomful of jeering friends than it is to assail the undead forces with the “A” button.

The PlayStation 2’s forays into “non-games” – the EyeToy games, trivia games, even Konami’s Karaoke Revolution efforts – all brought to gaming new people willing to sit in front of a console for hours on end. But none of them – perhaps until Guitar Hero – did what SingStar does at its core: sell a truly fun image. The shift onto the PS3 brings with it an online store with hundreds of tracks, but the big addition will be the ability to save and distribute your performances online. The promise of uploading my screaming face to you all as I devour Motorhead one more time is more than just the fulfillment of a deep-seated personal wish – its the capture and capitalization of one of the oldest forms of fun.

Christian McCrea is a game writer, academic and curator based in Melbourne, Australia. He submitted this article with the threat to “drive his editors before him and hear the lamentations of their spell-checkers.”

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