Karaoke, TikTok, and Mimesis
Posted by <Brandon Avery Joyce> on 2022-02-15
Above is a fanvid of Barry White's “You Turned My Whole World Around,” blurred to protect the privacy of its creator. It’s from 2014, but I first saw it a few years ago when it was reposted by the artist-musician Sadaf Nava.
In this fanvid, the fan, Gabriela, reclines on her couch. Her man sits in the kitchenette mangling takeout, oblivious to her filming. She gazes mistily into her phone and her eyes confide to us: she adores this man of hers, even now as he doofusly fumbles with the remote. In true love, it’s never a question of whether the beloved matches or misses our ideals. In love, they become the ideal in everything that they are and do, even their goofiest aspects, adored beyond reason. I couldn’t remember seeing a more touching proof of love’s transmutation than Gabriela’s: sixty-four seconds, a hundred-some views, with a wonky watermarking app, and fully from the heart. No professional could’ve pulled off anything better. And a viewer with enough perspicuity, watching this thing on Youtube seven years ago, would’ve possibly been able to predict TikTok today by grasping the power that made its rise possible: the power of mimesis.
Every night, in Warsaw, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, South Philadelphia— all over Earth— bars get stuffed with drunks lining up with pencil stubs for the opportunity to sing karaoke and wishfully reproduce Wuthering Heights or Suffragette City. For some of these people, this isn’t a game. It’s a need that’s got to be met on a near weekly basis. But what’s the pull here? What compels them? One translation of mimesis is as “mimicry,” like children mimicking their superheroes, or the viceroy butterfly mimicking the monarch, and in karaoke this is fully on display. We take turns as our musical superheroes, microdosing stardom, in front of a sloppy, forgiving audience. But that’s just a bonus, not the essence. The desire is hardly dampened in private karaoke rooms— or when singing in the shower or in traffic, alone. The will-to-karaoke is generally communal but it’s not primarily for the love or benefit of an audience. Mimesis goes deeper. Have you noticed how karaoke veterans often stick to a relatively slim repertoire? They sing the same songs night after night, never seeming to get bored, even if they’d get bored listening to those same songs. This is because these veterans, on some level, understand something that we civilians don’t: those same songs are never quite the same. Even the original song is not the same. When you think of mimicry, you think of an original and a copy, the way Plato thought of mimesis, as mere imitation. That’s the problem. That’s not mimesis, at least not the real shit, not the mimesis you find for one in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory.
When we’re talking about the real shit, the original itself is a mimesis, less in the sense of an imitation than an answer that calls out in its every quaver, the profoundest tensions and contradictions in our world, and in ourselves and others. My take is that mimesis is more reproduction than a simple mirroring, which intimately reproduces all those tensions and contradictions in a form that makes them suddenly clutchable by the spirit and the senses. Our musical superheroes may summon this best— they have the real powers to artfully reproduce— but when we stagger up to the karaoke stage, we’re not imitating them so much as responding truthfully to the same forces and feelings. We’re not singing “I’m you.” We’re singing “I know what you’ve gone through” and equally “you know what I’ve gone through.” This gives the appearance of mere imitation. Pros do it better, but we too are answering the same longing, tenderness, and heartbreak, the same rage, excitement, invincibility, nostalgia, sublimity— or at the very least, the same vibes. We’re reproducing the same tensions and contradictions that they reproduced, everting them into a sensuous result, for all our drunk friends and fellow patrons to enjoy.
However, even our shitty renditions elaborate and, in an important sense, compose the originals. There were lots of songs— “Take a Chance on Me,” “Radio Free Europe,” “We Gotta Get out of this Place,” “Sunny,” “Right Down the Line”— that I’d heard a thousand times, but they were effectively just a bunch of sounds gurgling over the department store intercom. Only when I saw these songs, “mimeted” by my friends, resonating through their bodies, lapping up the semantics of the nearby world, were they revealed to me as music. God knows it’s not because my friend’s renditions were flawless. To the contrary, it was more in how they strained or struggled, or the particular style in which they butchered a classic, that I could really feel all those tensions and contradictions. That’s when I really got it.
Compositionally, a melody is a mimesis that acts out, in time, the tensions of an otherwise static musical scale. And speaking more historically— specifically of the history of music— every new song is a mimesis of countless others that came before it. By this, I don’t mean that songs are just “remixes” of previous ones. The progressions, rhythms, tones, textures— all the parts and pieces— are not just borrowed. They’re actively set off against each other, using the tensions between songs and their parts and pieces, hopefully enough to escape identification. When you too easily or too immediately like a new song, free of any other context, scratch the surface and you’ll probably be able to dissect it into the things and songs of which it’s Frankensteined. This is much harder to place when it comes to world-disclosing music by “original” or “groundbreaking” geniuses. Nevertheless they too are reproducing from deep sources, responding to a certain canon that’s been sandwiched down in their psyche from a lifetime of listening. We all share these canons. We call on them each time we make or listen to music. However, most of us ain’t exactly musical geniuses. In fact, many of us can’t even really “do” karaoke. We don’t have the voice, or the presence, or— as in my case— that much interest. The lip-sync, or the fanvid, however— these are mimeses open to pretty much everyone.
Much as Palantir took notes from Foucault and the IDF from Deleuze and Guattari, TikTok began some years ago as a start-up secretly scouring theory for use in its research and development. One hire, a post-doc pulled from a Germanistics program, had arrived red in the cheeks, eager to explain the urgency of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. “It’s all in there,” he’d exclaim. And it was all in there, but— unsurprisingly— not very amenable to the ends of business. Then one day on his lunchbreak, he stumbled across Gabriela’s video on Youtube. His pulse raced. His eyes widened. He immediately rang headquarters: “Listen, I got it: mimesis”— then, taking a huge bite out of his sandwich— “I’ll explain later on a conference call.” On TikTok, you could post short original clips, as on Vine or Snapchat, but what differentiated TikTok in my opinion was how heavily it leaned on the mimetic qualities of fanvids— and to an exponential degree once you could recycle audio from previous TikToks. Just as melody is a mimesis acting out a fixed musical scale, each new TikTok would visually mimete and act out the forces of a given length of audio, much like Gabriela, acting out with her eyes and her phone the transmutation of love deeply intoned by Barry White. Music videos had done this for decades; now it was only a button away for tweens and retirees. The Germanist was right. Enormous creative energies would be released.
After some time, however, that same Germanist came to regret his decisions. He’d initially been proud watching all these microworks produced by the millions. Even if only a minute, or a quarter of a minute long, some of these TikToks contained the kernels of real aesthetic progress, especially those that collated the visual and the musical into one seamless medium. However, he couldn’t kid himself. The platform was extractive— and not just financially or informatically. It was aesthetically extractive. This first occurred to him after watching some TikToks containing the opening bars of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence. The song’s poignancy had been milked for a lot of really funny, really great video-memes. But he noticed that, by what seemed like the thousandth clip, The Sound of Silence no longer plucked the same heartstrings, even when heard in its entirety. TikTok had killed the song for him. The tensions and contradictions that we plumb to make and enjoy music are extremely rich, but they’re not inexhaustible. He’d already known this, and in fact had used music’s depletability in his personal life to get over hard feelings. Whenever he was trapped in an emotional cul-de-sac, he’d select a song that precisely articulated his pains— one that said “I know what you’ve gone through” and equally “you know what I’ve gone through”— then listen to it on repeat through headphones for days on end, until he could no longer inwardly act out those feelings; that is, until both he and the song were totally exhausted. Now, sitting in the office that he received after the big promotion, staring out the window, he couldn’t help but wonder what this meant for the company or, for that matter, the longer future of cultural production.