One particularly telling challenge has the contestants singing while taking on the job of a waiter, serving Steve-O a five-course meal while being shocked by multiple electric collars attached to various parts of their bodies. This tableau of this challenge perfectly mirrors the increasingly debased working conditions in the United States. Before the performance, Steve-O briefly zaps himself on the neck with the shock collar set on full-strength, partly to associate himself with the contestant, and partly to imply that the singer is participating in the equivalent of a Jackass stunt. It is clear, though, that Steve-O is no longer engineering pain for himself but organizing it for others. Following the inevitable logic of career self-advancement, he has gone from being the exploited to being the manager of other people's exploitation.
The genuine class anxiety-fueled schadenfreude of American Idol isn't really a part of Killer Karaoke. Just before the stunts, Steve-O always says something to the effect of "You can do this, we're all rooting for you," even when it's obvious that the contestant is about to get considerably more of a challenge than they are prepared for. This is a show where everyone is supposed to enjoy the pain together. Even when one contestant completely loses all traces of composure and stops singing entirely, Steve-O smiles and said afterward, "Nobody comes here to see everything go well." Instead of notes from a panel of wealthy authority figures, the contestants, rather, get one line of instruction: "No matter what happens, do not stop singing." All that is expected of them is to remain committed to the performance of the song in absurdly unacceptable circumstances. This mirrors being middle class in a country where a middle-class lifestyle has increasingly been an unsustainable performance that is only possible to continue though reckless borrowing. Is it that much of stretch to imagine a similar electric shock system being utilized on Amazon.com warehouse workers when the GPS units they're forced to carry indicate they're not moving fast enough? Currently these warnings come in text messages.
All the contestants can sing, but at its root Killer Karaoke is not really a singing show. It's the interruption of the singing that counts. Most performers do not even get to the chorus of their chosen songs before their voices begin to lurch and jump into moans, screams, disconcerted verbal objections, fragments of melodies, and awkward gaps of silence. One particular challenge always seems to set off the most dynamically cacophonous additions to the songs. The challenge involves lowering the singer into a tank of cold water and then gradually filling the tank with larger and larger snakes. The physical discomfort combined with primal fear has produced some amazingly original variations in song interpretation. These musical ideas are accidental, but they are also compelling. The result is that Killer Karaoke is the only place where it is possible to hear avant garde music on television. If played outside the context of the show, some of these songs could easily rival early 1970s Yoko Ono recordings like “Unfinished Music,” for use of extended vocal technique, edginess and genuine expressiveness unsullied by commercial compromise. These are the primal screams of the disappearing American middle class.
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