Something about singing at karaoke bars seems to bring out the worst in people, particularly in East Asia, where this 'art form' originated.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper of Britain recently reported on a bizarre double-murder that erupted in a karaoke establishment in Xi'an in central China.
According to the report, the refusal of a small boy from relinquishing his microphone prompted the child's two uncles to criticize his parents for indulging him so much. The conflict escalated into a shoving match leading to another relative attacking the two uncles with a meat cleaver, resulting in a horrific double murder.
This tragic episode might be written off as simply a bizarre, inexplicable one-time incident – except that confrontations in karaoke parlors have culminated in murderous violence in other parts of Asia as well.
Perhaps the most-prominent string of karaoke-related killings have taken place in The Philippines, where Frank Sinatra's trademark song "My Way" has served as the soundtrack for at least a dozen murders over the past decade. The situation has reached a point where some Filipino karaoke businesses have actually removed “My Way” from the jukebox repertoire.
A 63-year-old Filipino barber in the town of General Santos named Rodolfo Gregorio told the New York Times: “I used to like ‘My Way,’ but after all the trouble, I stopped singing it. You can get killed.”
While karaoke is wildly popular in The Philippines, especially among the poor and working classes, alcohol likely also plays a role in fistfights and knifings that frequently break out in venues across the country. In May 2007, a 29-year-old Filipino man singing "My Way" in San Mateo, Rizal, was shot to death by the karaoke bar's security guard who complained he warbled the song out-of-tune,
Similarly, in March 2008, a man in Thailand shot eight people, including his own brother-in-law, after he was dissatisfied by their noisy, tuneless rendition of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads".
Weenus Chumkamnerd, the killer, told local media: "When I began shooting nobody pleaded for his life because they were all drunk. I warned these people about their noisy karaoke parties. I said if they carried on I would go down and shoot them. I had told them if I couldn’t talk sense into them I would come back and finish them off.”
Also, in 2008, a Malaysian man in Sandakan, Borneo was stabbed to death in a karaoke coffee shop by other patrons seeking to get on stage, having tired of him hogging the microphone.
In June 2012, three men were arrested after killing five people at a karaoke bar in Thailand.
However, the strange link between karaoke and violence appears most frequently in The Philippines, leading Filipino media and police to coin the phrase “My Way killings,” in reference to the Sinatra standard.
The Times reported that the violence tends to stem from anger over poor, tuneless performances of the song.
“The trouble with ‘My Way,’ ” said Gregorio, “is that everyone knows it and everyone has an opinion.”
Butch Albarracin, the owner of a Manila singing school, had his own novel explanation for the violence linked to that song.
“‘I did it my way’ – it’s so arrogant,” he said. “The lyrics evoke feelings of pride and arrogance in the singer, as if you’re somebody when you’re really nobody. It covers up your failures. That’s why it leads to fights.”
Others cite the violent nature of Filipino society itself, not the quality or rendition of any particular song.
“The Philippines is a very violent society, so karaoke only triggers what already exists here when certain social rules are broken,” said Roland B. Tolentino, a pop culture expert at the University of the Philippines.
Indeed, The Times noted, The Philippines is a poverty-stricken nation with more than 1 million illegal guns in circulation. Violence is endemic.
A Manila watch-repairman named Dindo Auxlero explained to The Times: “In the Philippines, life is difficult,” citing a fragile economy and political corruption.
Reuters reported that karaoke bars provide a cheap form of entertainment for millions of Filipinos, some of whom earn as little as $2 per day or less (whereas, one can sing a song in karaoke for only a dime).
"Here in the slum areas, when they have problems, they drink a little and sing... For a moment, they forget about their problems," Erlu Barcarcel, a clothes vendor, told Reuters.
Singing in karaoke venues allows the poor to temporarily escape their grim surroundings,
Vern de la Pena, a musicologist from the University of the Philippines, told Reuters: "[Singing 'My Way is] a magical moment that is separate from [their] ordinary life.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.