Karaoke Culture By Dubravka Ugresic – A Review

Karaoke Culture
Dubravka Ugresic
Open Letter Press, 2011, pg 323

To even write this review is to participate in the Karaoke Culture the Dubravka Ugresic criticizes. To be one of the voices the mass experiment in democratic culture is only one more example of a worldwide culture that is collapsing into parodies of itself as we all become yet another karaoke singer demanding our moment and adding nothing. It is a hard criticism, but Ugresic has little patience for us off key singers. She has a point.

For Ugresic, the problem stems from the whole concept of Karaoke. It is not about creating something new, nor even paying homage to the artist whose work you are singing, instead it is about becoming one the artist represents. The act, though, is not transformative , it is submissive. The participant becomes a facile representation of the artist, attempting to become the artist and, worst of all, surrendering to the celebrity culture that has spawned it.

Karaoke-people are everything but revolutionaries, innovators, or people who will change the world. They’re ordinary people, readers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, consumers and conformists. All the same, the world changes and ordinary people have their part to play.

The very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games. Today people are more interested in flight form themselves than discovering their authentic self. The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hod for more promise than digging in the dirt of the self. The culture of narcissism has mutated into karaoke culture—or the latter is simply a consequence of the former.

To illustrate this she investigates the sub cultures of sci-fi and fantasy, hardcore gamers and strange creations such as Abba world in London. In each she see people who are escaping from reality into worlds that don’t offer any freedom, but make them docile. Her greatest vitriol, though, is for the inhabitants of the former eastern block. She often sees them as trashy fools who have traded the enforced worship of the state idols, for the unthinking idol worship of all the worst of consumer culture. Creating needle point rugs that show scenes from porn movies is not art, but just loss of any kind of objective standards. But who needs standards when we are all creating culture, our own culture that is just a pale shadow of the original. And it is in that so called freedom that we loose ourselves in our own excitement that we too are stars, and loose our ability to think critically.

For her, fan fiction is the worst of all things. It is indicative of a world in which the writer is not the creator, but at the beck and call of the fan. The writer must please like a trained seal. Writing is no longer about high and low culture, the only thing that is important is “the fact that we’re producing.” She doesn’t see any saviors, either.

Criticism has changed. Today no one dares set out the differences between master and amateur, between good and bad literature. Publishers don’t want to get involved; they are almost guaranteed to lose money on a good writer, and make money on a bad one. Critics hold heir fire, scared of being accused of elitism. Critics have had the rug pulled out from under them in any case. No longer bound by ethics or competence, they don’t even know what they’re supposed to talk about anymore. University literature departments don’t set out the differences–literature has turned into cultural studies in any case

The freedom we thought we gained with the internet and participatory culture has actually destroyed culture.

Those are strong words, but Ugresic has seen the damage that slavish and unthinking adherence to one cultural ideal can do. The rest of the book is filled with short little essays that detail her encounters with such a world. The pieces look as if they were written as newspaper columns, although the book doesn’t say, and have the conversational feel of a newspaper essay. Over and over again she encounters the paradoxes of the west, for example, describing the lives of Filipino maids serving western families in Hong Kong and living in puny little closets. Or she takes aim at the states of the former Yugoslavia, where once the people all proclaimed they were one, but at the first opportunity they turned on each other. Where ever she turns, she sees people proclaiming one thing and living another, and she can’t stand it.

Ugresic, can be funny when she makes these observations. Her experiences in the Balkans are fascinating and the stories are great. In one she describes a Serbian thug who became part of the government and has created his own folk village, one that is run on almost fascistic terms and whose purpose is really to celebrate the thug. At the same time, the man is an environmentalist interested in preserving the forest around his creation. The paradoxes amongst nationalists she describes are disturbing, a bit terrifying, and comic because there is no alternative.

Unfortunately, despite her insights, she can also sound like Andy Rooney. If I have to see another sentence that uses freshman English constructions such as, now days…, I will have to throw the book down. Her criticism is breezy and reads well, but you constantly have the feeling that shes just complaining because the world has passed her by. I don’t think it is necessarily true, but if  when you keep up with the “kid these days” type of criticism, you end up sounding that way. Often times you have the idea that she doesn’t really even know the subject that well. It’s as if she heard about it on the news and is now giving her opinion, rather than first hand experience. It might be a little unfair and first had experience is not required for every criticism one makes, but that sense of the detached outsider doesn’t always work. The other draw back of the book is the short pieces that make up at least half of the book. The essay Karaoke Culture is around a hundred pages and sustains an argument, but the occasional pieces are tedious after a while. Fortunately, towards the end of the book she has some longer pieces that make for more compelling reading.

It is too bad the book has these defects because I was looking forward to reading her essays and although I think the essay Karaoke Culture is interesting, the book as a whole suffers. Nonetheless, I look forward to reading more of her work at some point, as I think it is a great lens for looking at Europe and the world, neither left nor certainly right.

You can read an interview with her at Kirkus.