Academic journal article Current Musicology

The Filth and the Fury: An Essay on Punk Rock Heavy Metal Karaoke

Academic journal article Current Musicology

The Filth and the Fury: An Essay on Punk Rock Heavy Metal Karaoke

Article excerpt

Lauren is a photographer who lives in New York City. The daughter of a urologist, she grew up in Westchester County and graduated cum laude from NYU. Lauren's master's degree in photography has served her well at Punk Rock Heavy Metal Karaoke (PMK), a live band karaoke night in New York City she attends almost every week. (1) The gaze of her camera is frequently trained on friends and strangers as they sing, scream, and pose onstage. With over one hundred of her photos posted online, this is still only a small portion of the thousand-plus PMK photos on the photo-sharing website In documenting this amateur event, Lauren is also joined by a host of videographers, including a number of professionals. PMK has inspired a documentary film that played the independent festival circuit, Punk Rock Heavy Metal Karaoke: The Movie (2001), and videos of individual singers have been uploaded on YouTube. (2) The joy found in looking and being looked at is a big part of PMK's appeal, and, as one might expect, hearing and being heard is also central to the event. Every week the voice is "gazed" upon by listeners much as the body is gazed upon by spectators. A great deal of attention focuses on how individual singers emulate the original vocalist of a song and the degree to which they stake out a vocal identity of their own, as well as how they present themselves in relation (or contrast) to familiar rock star visual codes.

The power of this bodily and vocal display is illustrated one Monday night as Lauren prepares to venture into the more aggressive reaches of the punk songlist. Having previously limited herself to a handful of pop-tinged songs--songs that are in keeping with her friendly offstage demeanor--Lauren has taken a bit of ribbing for her ever-present smile and what one PMK regular, Rico, calls her "aura of niceness." So when Rico dares her to sing "something with the words 'fuck,' 'cunt,' or 'abortion,'" whether intended as a joke or not, she decides to accept the challenge.

After the emcee calls Lauren's name, she nervously accepts the microphone and the beer-stained plastic-sheathed lyric sheet. As the band launches into a stampeding, overdriven two-note riff Lauren's eyes intensify and she spits out the words:


In the act of singing "So What" by Anti-Nowhere League ([1981] 1996), (3) Lauren's entire demeanor changes. The smile remains but there is a visible gleam of malice in her eye. On the small stage her body is propelled forward as she moves aggressively toward the audience. Likewise her voice is cast out of her body with a shrieking force that twists the simple melody of the song into new shapes. The reaction of the audience to Lauren's new persona is overwhelming positive. Those nearest the stage gaze up and scream the next lines together, ending with an accusatory "WHO CARES ABOUT YOU! YOU! YOU! YOU!" as they point alternately toward the stage and each other. At the song's end, after Lauren has sung about her further adventures "spewing up on a pint of piss," "jacking up until [she] bleed[s]," "suck[ing] an old man's cock," and "fuck[ing] a schoolgirl's crack," the audience breaks out into rapturous applause and approving catcalls.

By her own admission, singing "So What" for the first time destabilizes Lauren's sense of discrete selfhood. Afterwards, she describes feeling "momentarily possessed" by her newly discovered "dark side," letting out "a devilish fit of laughter" when she left the stage. Even a couple of years later, in a quote taken from her wedding announcement (she married the karaoke band's drummer), Lauren describes the PMK experience in similar terms: "it unleashed something I never knew existed." Drawing on imagery appropriate to a horror movie, she could just as easily be describing The Exorcist and its depiction of a young girl whose body and voice become instruments of the Devil. …

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