Keeping time (and tune) with students in Shanghai

Steve Kelman enjoys an evening of karaoke and bottled water.

karaoke sign

Karaoke – called "KTV" in the Chinese-speaking world– is a staple of university-student entertainment in China. The karaoke venues are (at least in China) big, modern locations with bright and often pulsating lights in the public area, and then divided up into small rooms where groups from two to maybe eight can sit in front of a biggish-size TV screen. A computer offers a wide variety of popular songs. Guests choose songs, and the songs then appear on the TV screen: Music, a visual (sometimes the artist singing the song, sometimes actors who look sort of like castoffs from TV ad casting calls), and the lyrics, with a moving ball telling the viewer when to sing each word.

There are usually two microphones in the room, and anyone who wants to can sing along, with the microphone somehow mysteriously improving the quality of the voice of the person singing into it.

When karaoke first came to a liberalizing China, it was very associated with prostitution, but that seems largely to have disappeared, certainly for the young crowds who dominate many, though not all, of the karaoke venues.

While in Shanghai for a conference and some lectures, I had the time of my life attending a karaoke place with a group of students. Listening to the songs they requested and how they reacted to them gave me a feel for the pulse of China's new generation.

The largest two groups of songs the students requested – in about equal numbers – were Chinese and American pop. The Chinese pop was all over the map, everything from soupy ballads (for which I confess a weakness) to Chinese rap and techno. But their knowledge of American pop – their selections were on the softer side, including old stuff such as the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" -- was surprisingly good. One boy was skillfully able to sing the words, with a quite good accent, of pretty much every American pop song requested. Most of the students seemed at least somewhat familiar with the songs, and happy to sing along.

A unique feature of karaoke in China, of which I had not been aware earlier, is the presence in the music selections of so-called "red songs" (hong ge), the bizarre Mao-era musical depictions of brave soldiers and virtuous peasants set to martial-style music, of China defeating American imperialism, that have in certain circles undergone something of a nostalgic revival recently. These students also generally learned many of these red songs as children. Two red songs were requested during the evening, including the iconic Mao-era classic "The East is Red." They were, however, sung to boisterous laughter and turned off about a third of the way through.

There was something patriotic that was taken seriously, however. The students requested "Beijing Welcomes You" (Beijing huan ying ni), the theme song of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. All the students sung along, very enthusiastically and with obvious joy.

Another interesting feature: there are a range of drinks, from fruit juice to harder stuff, available at these places. The students in my group all drank bottled water.

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