Friday, February 10, 2006

The pleasures of singalongs. Lately I have been taking real pleasure in very dorky old-fashioned entertainments. On Saturday night, while some people were at parties and bars and whatnot, I sat in the living room with Natalya and Stephen, singing along to old TV themes ("Show me that smile, oooh show me that smile!", "what was she to do, where was she to go, she was out on her fannyyyy!"). We had such fun.

Then last night I went to the launch of the new Sleepers Almanac with the other magazine editors. Sleepers is very proud that its launches are "literary events". This one was very dull. The venue was too small; we couldn't even get in the door. Luckily, we were fresh from a meeting held at Troika, and had been well primed with beer and wine.

Importantly, Penny had had two glasses of wine, which rendered her completely shitfaced as she never usually drinks. That day she had bought a Bonds singlet from the Basement, which appeared blue when she bought it, but when she put it on, it was revealed to have strange Hypercolour properties! Imagine the scene: we're in the bar downing more drinks, surrounded by 'serious' creative writing types, as Penny exhorts us to grab her boob to get the traditional Hypercolour handprint.

The real fun began when she decided to play the piano in the foyer. Her hand-eye coordination was a little off (although this didn't stop her caning me at Pacman in the pub later on), but she attracted the attention of Casey Bennetto, writer of Keating! The Opera. The two of them proceeded to stage an impromptu cabaret performance of such standards as "New York, New York", "Big Spender" and "The Lady Is a Tramp", which degenerated agreeably into an all-in pop singalong.

I can't describe how exciting it was to me to hear Casey launch into the jubilant opening bars of "Head Over Heels". I had had several brewskis myself, and I believe I may have jumped up and down with delight. Emah was dragged away from her glass of wine to serenade the crowd with her now-notorious rendition of "Wuthering Heights". Penny and I were photographed doing interpretive hand gestures to "Bohemian Rhapsody". Other songs I can recall were "What a Fool Believes", to which Tash and I danced (imagine that! I haven't danced to mere piano accompaniment since I stopped doing ballet in 1990), and "Ashes to Ashes", in which I did the synth line and the spoken bits ("I never did anything out of the blue. Whoa whoa.")

By the end, people were standing around in the foyer singing along, and the Sleepers women were looking somewhat put out that their event had been hijacked by these upstart editors whose magazine is nothing but a cheap gimmick and whose launches are not literary events but degenerate boozefests. The climax was "Livin' On A Prayer", sung, complete with guitar solos, by Dan, with the crowd joining in on the chorus. Casey was a broken man: dripping in sweat, he endured our adulation for a minute or two before staggering off to the bar. Elated, we repaired to the pub for chips and gravy. Penny was in fine form, except when she fell off her chair. We walked home at about 11:30, as Penny sang with abandon:
Gina works the diner all day
She wears an ugly uniform
And a badge that says 'Dana'
Perhaps I haven't complained here about the dwindling opportunities for communal singing. I had this conversation towards the end of last year when Stephen, his housemates and his brother Bradley (who is a concert pianist) went to the local Carols by Candlelight, and were so enthused with the singalong that they stormed the Great Northern because they knew it had a piano. But the pub was full of bogans and they did that embarrassing thing where you go in one door, do a circuit and then leave by the other door.

We were saying that there are probably plenty of adults who really long for singalongs, and there would probably be a huge market for Carols by Candlelight nights held in bars. See, I believe group singing is something everyone loves, no matter their vocal ability. Before the spread of recorded music, people used to have plenty of opportunities to sing in groups around the piano or the pianola, and sheet music of popular (eg: music hall) songs was a boom industry. But with the advent of technology, singing has been individualised: you sing in the shower, or in your car, or at karaoke. Moreover, amateur singing has been overtaken by narratives of stardom: whether it's the individual singer as karaoke star, or as Pop Idol.

Meanwhile, group singing has become institutionalised: you have to join school and church choirs or semi-professional choral societies, and then you sing a narrow repertoire. The rare occasions we sing informally in group situations are on dancefloors when women shout lyrics at each other across their handbags, in footy changerooms and pubs where men group-hug and bellow the team song or "Khe Sanh", or at parties when people end up singing "Summer of '69" or "Tears in Heaven". Hey, I wonder if any of Guy's friends remember me as the drunkard at his 21st singing and playing the piano.

I suspect I gravitate towards musical people - we've been known to burst into fully harmonised a capella on public transport, to go sick at karaoke, to write songs for and about each other, and to badger each other to sing for entertainment at social functions. But still, I just can't tell you the pleasure I got from simply singing around a piano. And I think people should do it more.

As I've written here before, I suspect the pleasure group singing gives is one of inclusion: of being part of something larger. (As an aside, I love the way I managed to put my "Thriller" dance-off desire into action after two years of talking about it, even if the dance-off did lead to one of the most painful humiliations of my life.) Specifically, I think it's a corporeal and affective thing: you feel yourself becoming part of a larger whole, producing this wall of sound with your body.

And I think there's a strong component of nostalgia; not just because of the rich cultural history of singalongs, but because for most of us, our last experience of group singing is as a child. Think about how Carols by Candlelight is always pitched as a children's event. For me, this was encapsulated last night in the piano chords of "Head Over Heels", which I now indelibly associate with Donnie Darko, a film that in turn I associate with the bittersweet knowledge of youth's impermanence. I want to have more piano singalongs, soon.

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