Karaoke revolution

Pub date March 25, 2008
WriterGlen Helfand
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


REVIEW The radio at my neighborhood Laundromat is a source of pop music melancholy. That a-ha song "Take on Me" gets me misty while folding socks — damn it.

Something similar happened when I first saw British artist Phil Collins’s captivating Smiths karaoke video project, dünya dinlemiyor (Turkish for "the world won’t listen") at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2006. The piece documents Turkish Smiths fans performing versions of the band’s classics in front of high-keyed landscape photo backdrops — many depicting sites far more tropical than Istanbul. Throughout the run of the exhibition, the cozy projection room was packed with people who stayed far longer than they would for more blatantly arty video pieces. They laughed with empathy — and perhaps to deflect the mix of emotions roused by their own powerful memory triggers.

Dünya dinlemiyor was just one-third of a recently completed trilogy by Collins: to bracket his shoot in Istanbul, he also conducted karaoke sessions at Bogotá, Colombia, and two Indonesian cities. All three were recently united as a triptych at the Dallas Museum of Art. That Texas metropolis — site of the 1992 concert DVD Morrissey: Live in Dallas — is a long way from here. But the monograph produced for the exhibition, Phil Collins: the world won’t listen (Yale University Press, 132 pages, $45), serves as something akin to an edifying concert brochure. This is particularly true of a historical essay (regarding the Smiths oppositional relationship to Thatcherism and corporate label hegemony) by music critic Simon Reynolds.

In addition to Reynolds’s observations, Phil Collins: the world won’t listen includes still photos from videos, related imagery, two other illuminating essays, and a particularly engaging interview with Collins. "Karaoke is a form of joyful treason in which you quite materially supplant your idol," he tells the book’s editor, Dallas Museum curator Suzanne Weaver. Her conversation with the artist illuminates his interest in mediated subjects, and positions his Smiths project as an anti–American Idol. "Every single season [American Idol] is about complete conformity around the idea of the songbook," he observes. Collins’ Smiths project shatters that conformity, presenting an international range of people swayed by the idiosyncratic, outsider, emo aura of, say, "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side."

Critic Bruce Hainley links American Idol to the George W. Bush administration in a manner that — fittingly, considering that the Smiths are a touchstone of Collins’s project — combines longing with astute social observation. "What does it take to be a celebrity (not a star), circa 2007?" he asks, and then provides the American Idol–inspired answer: "Twelve weeks, and consumers voting with more gusto than they have voted in any recent American presidential election." Just as insistently, Hainley points to the crush-generating erotic lure of pop music collateral, citing a shirtless Joe Dallesandro on the cover of the first Smiths album, as well as the camera’s apparent lust for a Smiths fan in a red T-shirt in Collins’s Bogotá-set video. Next, Liz Kotz provides descriptive insight into Collins’s other works, which subvert standard practices of popular media in their depictions of Kosovo refugees, Iraqi citizens, and people emotionally scarred by their appearance on reality TV.

Because musical performance is so central to Collins’s work, it’s a shame that this slip-cased volume doesn’t include a DVD with a few song snippets and examples of the similarities and differences between each national version of the project. But there are compensations: the book does sport images of the Smiths’ set lists, an unauthenticated 1981 handwritten note from Morrissey, and Hainley’s comic acknowledgment of Collins’s pop music namesake: "Why not Genesis karaoke?"