Karaoke's impact has been monumental - certainly in Japan and south Asia; a generation finds it second nature to put themselves at the front of the world's biggest pop hits. Consider the fact that around the world, karaoke bars nestled in the Little Tokyos and Chinatowns become cultural fondue pots, as people of all shades and stripes come together under one roof to butcher Bon Jovi. World peace is possible. It will just be hell to listen to.
Playing with the Mic Stand
There have been a number of ill-fated attempts to coalesce the karaoke phenomena with computer game consoles, most of which have disappeared without so much as a Wikipedia entry to mark their burial. And while Konami's Karaoke Revolution games were phenomenally successful, for sure, and have spawned dozens of spin-off discs of their own, some central element was still clogging up the drains. Namely, it still looked like a computer game. SingStar jettisoned 3-D characters for 2-D, and put us in the thinnest possible frame of reference. You want to be a star, here's your apartment. Everybody and everything is stylish and cosmopolitan and urbane; Ikea drawn on a Wacom tablet. The use of lithe, big-eyed, big-teethed figures to foreground the karaoke experience is more than marketing tinsel; they connect the game's image to popular images of cafes and cartoon characters. They are inoffensive, almost bland but never boring, pseudo-Bratz. Perfect for selling the music industry on videogames.
SingStar's genius was not to reinvent the wheel but instead to give it a colorful and friendly hubcap. The first thing you see when you start playing is footage - as in, captured images and sounds of human beings - playing SingStar. Imagine firing up Halo 3 to find yourself watching footage of Little Johnny Blastpants swearing at people over Xbox Live. You don't want to see it; you'll be doing it soon enough for yourself. The gaming contract with SingStar is a very different beast; we need to be told and reminded that we'll be having raw human fun devoid of the bric-a-brac of gaming culture. So it's perfect that your first point of contact amounts to a TV ad, because SingStar is an advertising campaign. It doesn't have one merely attached to it; we are quilted into the product and marketed to each other. It's our soaring notes, screw-ups and dropped notes that build the idea that we can nail a song, finally, one day. Don't be fooled into thinking bravery is a gamer instinct; its a lot harder to sing Rihanna and entertain a roomful of jeering friends than it is to assail the undead forces with the "A" button.
The PlayStation 2's forays into "non-games" - the EyeToy games, trivia games, even Konami's Karaoke Revolution efforts - all brought to gaming new people willing to sit in front of a console for hours on end. But none of them - perhaps until Guitar Hero - did what SingStar does at its core: sell a truly fun image. The shift onto the PS3 brings with it an online store with hundreds of tracks, but the big addition will be the ability to save and distribute your performances online. The promise of uploading my screaming face to you all as I devour Motorhead one more time is more than just the fulfillment of a deep-seated personal wish - its the capture and capitalization of one of the oldest forms of fun.
Christian McCrea is a game writer, academic and curator based in Melbourne, Australia. He submitted this article with the threat to "drive his editors before him and hear the lamentations of their spell-checkers."