Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Karaoke Effect

"The Voice" top 12 contestants in 2016

Nine years ago, I published a short essay here on Design Observer, about a then-new reality TV phenomenon called American Idol. Part amateur hour, part train wreck, it was its own kind of twisted performance art: mesmerizing and hokey, replete with Motown mashups, interpersonal sagas, and improbable amounts of bling. At once fascinated and repelled by the wanton display of fanfare and mediocrity, I dove right in.

It may not have been a design story per se, but I saw it as part of a larger narrative that was highly visible, and by conjecture, of consequence to those of us interested in visual form, public spectacle, and our shared definitions of critique. Not all of our readers agreed that this was DO-worthy, but the topic itself hit enough of a nerve that the ensuing conversation gathered some serious traction. And that, if nothing else, bears sharing again.

Long before The Voice and America’s Got Talent, before Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, the conversations here on Design Observer were sometimes funny, often fierce, at times even fiery: disagreements, added details, amplified references and mini-debates were the norm—even when the topic was something as arguably banal as reality TV.

I confess that I miss those days, and urge you to read to the end not for my sake, but to digest the fascinating contributions of so many of our readers. If you like what you read, don’t despair. You may not find those conversations here on our site, but on the upside—in between bouts of your own self-selected binge-watching on Netflix—you can probably follow most of them on Twitter. 


Like 37.3 million other Americans, I spent four hours of my life this week watching countless people make buffoons out of themselves on national television. The season premiere of American Idol began, as is now its habit, by showing thousands of people lining up in cities across America, eager to belt their hearts out in search of a "golden ticket." No, this is not a reference to the Roald Dahl book about a chocolate factory, but it might as well be, because like many of the characters in that beloved childhood classic, Idol tells a tale of greed, improbability and illusion. Sorry: make that delusion.

Which may be precisely the point. The draw for viewers clearly lies in a kind of vicarious thrill, in the overwhelming sense of relief that comes from the full knowledge that it's not you up there. There's that explicit, over-the-top embrace of humiliation writ large, the tears and the pleading and the full-frontal failure — that all-too-common televisual strain of schadenfreude that is the purview of most (if not all) reality programming.

Yet oddly, in this case, it's the very hold on reality that's slipping. The lure of American Idol, in these early weeks, lies in precisely this shaky space: that illusory bubble populated by thousands of fame-seekers who fervently believe in their own righteous, if highly fictional talent.

I call this the karaoke effect.

Karaoke comes from the Japanese "kara" — which means empty — and it's probably no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of Idol hopefuls are, quite frankly, all about the void. In this sense, American Idol is rather aptly named (after all, it's not called "American Talent") casting a kind of pious light on the whole enterprise. Indeed, for these people — people who deify the Top 40 and long to be the target of the popularity polls, not to mention the paparazzi — it's (idol) worship that's key: ergo, stardom as religion. Thus brainwashed by pop culture, they follow the fantasy mecca to cities all across America to prove their worthiness, as if worthiness only matters if people are applauding for you.

Such an emphasis on the contrivances of fame is on one level completely unsurprising. Basically, it's no different from the mania surrounding the Beatles first broadcast appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, except that the screaming fans are screaming for themselves. Future pop-cultural anthropologists, take note: in an era that is likely to be remembered for its unique emphasis on self-love, these supplicants might just be the next logical step on the evolutionary chain of fandom.

Barring the presence of the Oompa Loompas, the land of Charlie is a lot more realistic. After all, Wonka's story operates on a simple premise: your chance is as good as anyone's because it's all a lottery. But in the land of American Idol, the golden ticket (a goldenrod-hued sheet of paper that is handed out to those who make it to the next round) is awarded for something called musical ability. It is not a game of chance. It is a measure of that very rare thing called talent which, in case you were wondering, is seldom in evidence here. There turn out to be a staggering number of people in this country whose talent is inversely (make that perversely) proportionate to their ambition. At least the Oompa Loompas knew their limits.

Not so on American Idol, where people of all shapes, sizes and degrees of questionable sanity endeavor to beat the odds. They croon and hiss and, God help us, dance in front of the judges. They forget the words. They falter, stumble and weep. What's astonishing is what got them there: the exalted, fetishized celebrity worship that supplants any speck of self-awareness; the misguided notion that their morning-shower sing-alongs were ever fit for public consumption; the stoic, if tragic self-affirmations that follow the inevitable trios of "no" from the judges — sappy monologues that could have been lifted from the diaries of Al Franken's legendary Stuart Smalley.

The karaoke effect is the result. It's cultural fallout: just as the karaoke singer imagines him or herself live and in concert before the screaming fans, so, too, does the illusion of grandeur persist once the microphone is turned off. Cell phones chirping with customized ringtones, satellite presets on the car radio, and TiVo catching whatever you think you might have missed, you're buffered from reality at every turn. In go the earbuds. Up goes your MySpace page, your Flickr album, your IM icon — all of them players in the juggled perpetuation of the mediated self. Life's just a mobile cocoon, feathered with digital ego-enhancers, a hermetically sealed entertainment playspace in which YOU are the star, the center of the universe, the triumphant hero. From there, imagining your Grammy acceptance speech is, quite frankly, a no-brainer.

This article was origianlly published January 19, 2007.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media, Music , Theory + Criticism

Comments [24]

I, too, watched the Idol premiere this week and noticed a shifting in tone from previous years. This year, the focus was more on the delusion, the worst of the worst, the extreme failures and delinquents more so than on perpetuating the dream. In fact, I felt this year the show was dangerously bordering on a new show, one of smoke, mirrors and undermining talent, ambition and hope.

I think that in the editing suites show creators forgot the balance. For, what works about reality shows, is the story of rags to riches. Not of rags to dirty, nasty, shriveled up, empty, and wretched rags. Yes you need a baseline to showcase the gems, but as far as I could tell, there were maybe two people of any talent actually featured.

The Gong show was funny because people knew they were terrible, and had a sense of humor about the thing. They still hoped to impress and emotion was still involved but the contestants weren't out of their heads. Idol has extremized "the dream" to an uncomfortable tenor.

Perhaps when Simon, Randy and what's her name seek someone with the "it" factor, what they really seek is human quintessence...
Jessica Gladstone

design observer say what?


american idol is basically garbage. one achieves nothing from watching any episode, save a boost of self esteem for watching others embarrass themselves. the judges are annoying, and as you say the competitors are usually untalented.

is this karaoke effect being seen in today's designers? where everyone can readily get there hands on photoshop and a deviant art account and hope they get the most comments? forgoing the process of learning

i am sure william hung would give great advice on composition and letter spacing

... The ad world is already part of this national spectacle. "The Apprentice" contestants already made a joke out of advertising by pretending to come up with multi-million dollar accounts. What a shame!

What's next?
1 of 300,000,000 +

Dear Disappointed, time to read our standard disclaimer:

Warning: May Include Non-Design Content.
Michael Bierut

This reminded me of an interview with Ricky Gervais where he's discussing the influence of Spinal Tap on the Office. He says

The funny thing is, just like the characters in Spinal Tap and the characters in 'The Office,' they have a blind spot. That's what's funny about them. You laugh at them because, as a viewer, you see the difference between how they are and how they see themselves. It's the gap that's funny.

To me that's exactly why American Idol is so fun to watch (even if I believe that 80% of the people are just pretending to be awful).

To your other point, I don't know what to say, except I'm totally guilty. I love my mobile cocoon.

There turn out to be a staggering number of people in this country whose talent is inversely (make that perversely) proportionate to their ambition.

True, but I thought it had also been pretty much universally accepted that there are a large number of people going to the auditions for the express purpose of getting into the gag reel, which is a sort of inverse skill all its own. It's pretty clear the show isn't interested in showing you the ones who simply didn't make it in; maybe they did the first year, but this is obviously feeding on itself. Most of the people I saw when I caught last year's reject show were just too spectacularly bad to buy that they were maybe just a little deluded about their abilities.

There's a card game called Mediocrity, whose basic theory can be applied as a variation on any contest, that fits in here somewhere.

Disappointed's comment reminds me of the article in the NYT's I read today entitled: "Help, I'm Surrounded by Jerks." I hope that doesn't make me come off as one.

Though there is that "warning" for people like D, I'd say it's often necessary to approach the study of design from the outside in as well as from the inside out.

Not to say a discourse on the sub-species of Dolly Varden trout would seem fitting for tomorrow's post. On the other hand, beside me is a beautifully designed 2007 calendar on the Trout of North America, and I doubt its designer could have put it together without having a little context first.

Being that the above post refers to such a mainstream cultural phenomenon, and seeing that the final paragraph strikingly ties the "karaoke effect" to so many other cultural developments of today, I find it offers an important context and line of critical thinking that can be used in anyone's approach to design.


I'm proud to say that I've never seen an episode of Idol (don't misunderstand me, I have my vices, but Idol just became too campy too quickly, and the recaps I got from studio mates sufficed). I do wonder people with actual talent might also be frustrated enough not to take part, and if this might explain the petering out of the talent-to-contestent ratio, to address the Jessicas' points?

I have a friend who went to the NYC audition for (i think) Season 3; she has classical training and a killer voice (I may not be capable of judging, but she's had enough Broadway callbacks where I feel I can say this with certainty). She left the line, exasperated because of the lack of professionalism and experience that she witnessed from the casting crew, and decided it wasn't worth her time. Based on your comments, I can only imagine how much further the standards have plummeted since then.

Regarding the Oompa Loompa reference, I saw the original ( Mel Stuart ) Oompa Loompas from time to time on TV as a kid. Their songs were so cool!

Then I saw the new ( Tim Burton ) movie and was really disappointed with the identical Oompa Loompas. Like clones -- cookie-cut outs. And the old songs were gone. :-(

Joe Moran

Very much enjoyed the time I spent reading and looking around your site...as a poet myself, I found it a most rewarding look. Thank you...

I can understand the rubbernecking appeal of Idol , despite (or maybe because of) the similarities with the travelling freakshow of days gone by, and for that reason (among others) I have never watched a full episode, but I won't let that stop me from having an opinion.

The real problem for me with Idol is that it has become the de facto standard for music - most people believe that this is what music is these days which, as a music purist is anathema. Here, in Australia, the record labels and radio stations seem to agree - the real talent has, for the most part, given up which is potentially ruining a small and once-great music industry.

I feel that, at best Idol is about trashy TV and, at worst, about pointing and laughing, slack-jawed at some poor deluded buffoon who doesn't know better that people aren't laughing with them but at them. For shame.

Inevitably, as the shock-value wares off towards the end of each season, when only the "talented" contestants are left, it must then be amped higher and higher for the start of each new season. If there ever was any real talent lining up for the Idol auditions, it has long-since, like tracy's friend, left the line.

Now I can definitely see some parallels with that in the design world!
Mr. One-Hundred

i come from india. when i was growing up in india... i remember my mom sitting in our really tiny verandah of our tinier house, and the four of us (my mom, dad, brother and me) would all sit down on a sunday eat a big fruit (either a watermelon, or a cantaloupe) and share it. when cutting it up my mom would scarpe the pulp in the center of the cantaloupe and leave it in the sun to dry, and then the next sunday we would eat the goodness that sits within the skin of each small seed of the cantaloupe. its almost like a tiny almond deep inside. i remember my dad never taking any phone calls during the day, mom never talking about the bills we need to get ready to pay, or the expenses coming up. It would be either... c'mon nitin eat more of the fruit or what's that scar on your forehead. it would be nice. my dad would the take me out for a walk, where i would climb on his back... and he would tell me a story, no fairies, no angels, but about his hardworked life... how he works hard and what it means to never lie to anyone or never be dishonest.
Cut to America 2002. A Lufthansa Aircraft lands in Atlanta, GA. My brother and sister in law, eagerly await my arrival at the airport. My brother sees me walking towards him, waves and calls out... nitin!! here!! and my eyebrows relax, forehead uncreases and I smile. The first thing that came out of his mouth was "welcome to America! You made it!" I was like yeah i did! I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design, and fortunately i spent a lot of time alone. Savannah helped it too. I was here to get up and run with a career, some knowledge and a lot of pride in myself. I slowly realized that I was suddenly being bombarded with a lot of culture that I am not used to. I became a number, a code, and ID which identified me in various places, be it at the Social Security Office, be it at the college, or be it the oh so important "credit score." I had more numbers as names to myself that no one is supposed to know than I ever had nicknames. We all are these people with identities that are supposed to be not shared. I was confused, left alone to deal with this new idea of life, and one day I cried as my credit score plunged lower and lower. I was spending way too much time going to college, walking the streets, and just learning what i wanted to learn, but i forgot, I can't ignore the numbers. i learnt to deal with the plastic and i was turning into something else. I did my own evaluations of people, and the way life exists, and how I need to keep up in a capitalist economy, and I found out that the "American Dream" can be bought. And that brings me to the point about American Idol, and these millions of people are actually people who want to buy a dream and are bidding on this high-life, and may be highest bidder with the right assets win.
Shows like American Idol promote a laziness of various kinds. It blurrs the line between talent and aptititude. Its stopping the cutlrure to nurture in its own oganic way. And its sad. Even sadder... was my knowledge of a show called Indian Idol I love this country. No offence, but the production line assemnbly idea stepped outside the factory and got into our personal lives, and took the cotton out of our homes and replaced it with some shiny plastic, which is great to look at, but lifeless at touch. In the end I will sound helpless and say, that I wish that culture was understood in a better way in America. That, more people knew where Iraq is on the map, that where we drive 3.5L cars with V6 engines... do we actually need to get anywhere any faster? Do we really need our servings to be bigger? What does advancement mean? Does it always means more Like in design sometimes, and in life... sometimes more is not less. Sometimes... more is OK, only sometimes. There is need for more... elsewhere. Won't the big brother with the most powerful resources in the world help?
nitin budhiraja


Thank you.

I happened to pick up a copy of Entertainment Weekly at a doctor's office last week, with its preview of the new Idol. One article featured some die-hard fan/contestants who have tried out for the show up to 22 times...really. They were simultanously delusional, touching, and wacked. But if nothing else, they were SINCERE.

There seems to be an unmet need in this country for creative expression. Once, ordinary people made music together in their homes, sang together in church and at school (I admit to loving the feeling of singing My Country Tis of Thee at assemblies) and made quilts, baked bread, tinkered in the woodshop. They acted in community theatre, too.

Visit a Michael's craft store (if you can stomach it) and you'll see hordes of people buying decoupage and Shaker boxes to trim, silk flowers and glass paint. They work on their projects while watching Design on a Dime and Rachael Ray.

Maybe the Idol people are sincerely trying to express something, and aren't just in search of celebrity, though they may not know it. Maybe YouTube and Flickr are part of this too.

Maybe it's not "look at me, I'm a star" but "look what I did". It feels good to be creative, and maybe it's our culture's fault that we make ordinary people believe their work only has value if they get recognized for it.

"There seems to be an unmet need in this country for creative expression."

I can't help but think the attraction of these shows is more about being turned into a celebrity than anything else; how attractive would it be to entrants if none of it was televised? A recent poll of UK kids had being famous as their top choice for "best thing in the world". There's nothing to stop people being creative in the ways they always have done, the difference is that people now see this as being a shortcut to something else, rather than the end in itself it used to be.

I'm not a singer but I'd venture to guess that it's easier to be deluded about your singing ability than it is about other forms of expression. It's also less work and there's far more reward if you succeed than, say, writing a novel. On the other side of the coin, Brian Eno made some positive comments about the karaoke phenomenon a few years ago but I'm damned if I can find them. They might be useful to this discussion if someone has the relevant interview.
John Coulthart

Too too too serious and maybe a bit Calvinist this post is - is American Idol really worth the deconstruction? Don't people watch because it is fun seeing some people obviously fail while others strive to suceed (and some do, proving that talent is rare) and fun to imagine yourself both performer and judge? Isn't this what tens of thousands do in design school everyday? Yet Idol is pop culture, not design culture - and it is probably best not to overly conflate the two.

Bt the way, the Gong Show also had three judges and was a spoof of a talent show from the get-go. Yet even it managed to stumble into early appearences by Oingo Boingo, Paul Ruebans, and Ru Paul. Maybe a critical eye would see a true talent or two on their TiVo on Idol that will in the future define the culture as opposed to simply reflect it. Jessica, buy better popcorn, sit back, enjoy the show, take it for what it is, pop, try to spot the culture stars and stop feeling so guilty over something that is ultimately pretty harmless and escapist. There is a lot to escape from just now.
Bernard Pez

I can't say why it bothers me so much . . .

Maybe a critical eye would see that the above post is not a simple reflection of the American Idol phenomenon. It uses American Idol to make a specific point about the way individuals in our generation imagine themselves (and their art) in a world that is much larger than most realize.

Yes, in many ways, our culture is defined by a revolution of interconnectedness. At the same time, we are becoming more disconnected. As Jessica explains, our "digital ego enhancers" allow each individual to paint the world the way he or she wants to see it. And so everyone imagines him or herself as the solo artist on stage, where the spotlight is on the each of us, and the arena is in complete darkness.

The point is, it's hard to know how to value one person's singing voice without putting it in context. Not only do people need to listen to their own voices next to the voices of others, talented and untalented. They need to know how to tell the difference! But how possible is this when, like in a karaoke bar, we ignore our own blemishes, and in doing so, ignore the brilliant points of others.

I believe art is more than just an act self-expression. It is a language. (Don't tell me this is irrelevant to the design world.) It communicates, and in order for people to communicate effectively, people need to be on the same page. American Idol is a show about how people aren't. Sure, you can set your brain aside and watch it for good ol' trashy entertainment value. Or you can choose to think about why so many people are auditioning and why the show attracts so much attention.

Or you can just discredit the post above. Go ahead. Read what you want to read and say what you want to say.

I agree, Dylan.

Laugh if you like, but maybe the whole premise of Idol and Flickr and the like is, in fact, a healthy sense of competition. A person putting themselves or their work "out there" doesn't guarantee attention--in the case of Flickr especially, results are skewed based on how many people either have added you as a contact or subscribe to your photostream.

Is there anything wrong with a format that challenges people to do their best or to try again when faced with failure? I hope not.
Linda Malie

"I reject your reality and replace it with my own."

This is a frighteningly relevant article simply because it takes a microcosm of contemporary culture and explores how it relates to the world we live in. The notion that this era will be remembered for its unique emphasis on self-love is a very true, and very sad fact.

To assume that humans should exist like celestial bodies, with the added pang of envy of course, is a bit short-sighted but one that drives so much action these days. I've always believed that the purpose of art and science and philosophy and athletics was to push boundaries, to redefine what's possible, to probe deeper, to venture into the undiscovered. But there's not necessarily any promise of fame in that. These days, the objective isn't even money as much as it is notoriety, to have others know of you and better yet envy you.

American Idol is a symptom of this mentality, and certainly not a cause. I have no idea what the cause is. Maybe its the proliferation of digital technology. Because if technology has succeeded in doing anything, its been in delivering the means to satisfy every impulsive, base, primal desire that might shoot through our brains. Everyone's natural default setting is to be pretty self-absorbed...its just that hopefully, most of us, go to the trouble of re-adjusting that setting as we grow up. But the urge never dissipates entirely. Something like American Idol provides an outlet for it. There are many, many others, from US Magazine to blogs to myspace pages.
Brad Gutting

I all of the sudden feel the need to re-read Don Quixote.

Joe Moran

It is the fear with-in culture that allures so many to American idol. It is both the need to feel superior coupled with the fear of how one is truly viewed by others. The viewer take comfort in seeing the rejects act foolish but feel the fear on the rejects face at the moment of "realization." It is a ride, a cheap and quick exhilaration, a rollercoaster - one moment you feel superior the next you wonder if that could be you. The question of who watches American Idol can simply be answered on their aesthetics. Is Kelly Clarkson your idea of talent? Unfortunately most think so - which is the real topic . . . . I only wish I was intelligent enough to comment on that.
Michael Amaru

I'd rather read about design than AI.

Chinese Idol. "No weirdness, no vulgarity, no low taste."

Joe Moran

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