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KILLER KARAOKE: Reality Television and the Death of the American Middle Class

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by Drew Gardner
March 22, 2013 8:35 AM
5 Comments
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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.

Killer Karaoke

's DNA can be traced back to one of the earliest reality shows, Beat the Clock. Beat the Clock, hosted by Bud Collyer, began airing in 1950, and featured contestants competing for money as they attempted timed stunts. Killer Karaoke, like Beat the Clock, is structured as a series of tasks: in other words, work. And it does something that TV is particularly good at: showing a person's immediate, visceral response. Killer Karaoke doesn't go farther into the contestant's backstory than their name and what song they've chosen. Their reactions are their story.

What is relevant to viewers' lives in Killer Karaoke is the purging, through laughter, of the stress of increasingly difficult and unrewarding work conditions. Its contestants have little to gain. The show exists in a world where the pretense of social mobility is almost totally gone. It's taken for granted that the terms of work are bad. The show is about how well and how entertainingly the singers go through their ordeals, reflecting the increasingly shrinking opportunities and humiliating work conditions now facing the majority of the American workers, where one can expect little from working hard and playing by the rules. Maybe one day someone will make a show about how to actually change these conditions that is this much fun to watch.

Drew Gardner’s books include Chomp Away (Combo, 2010), and Petroleum Hat (Roof Books, 2005). He tweets at @chompaway and lives in New York City.

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5 Comments

  • panger | April 2, 2013 5:43 PMReply

    Why is the audience left out of your critique? These programs need middle-class viewers, not just rich corporate overlords, to succeed.

  • Stewart | April 2, 2013 1:19 PMReply

    The economics the author subscribes to is dead. He's using the labor theory of value, which famously led Marx down his tragically wrong course that ultimately led to the murder or starvation of hundreds of millions.

    Value is subjective. An iPhone is more valuable to me than a bottle of water because I have plenty of water. Put me in the middle of the desert with nothing to drink and the equation changes. This is why most of the value in the world is created through exchange.

    It's good that the author notes that wealth inequality started skyrocketing in the 1970s. That's when the final vestiges of hard money were removed from America's currency system. The rich are getting richer because of our monetary policy. The Fed puts more money in the system via the financial sector. Rich people have much more access to that new money and they gobble it up.

  • Lucid | April 2, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    I doubt Drew Gardner is a communist, he is just confused about economics. Classical Marxist theory says that new value comes only comes from labor. Take land, add people, see how much food they produce. Now add capital, tractors, etc and they produce more with the same amount of labor. That new value came from capital. Now add knowledge, new ways to farm, production goes up again with same amount of labor. All inputs add value and all inputs, labor, capital etc can be over or underpaid.

  • Lucid | April 2, 2013 12:14 PMReply

    I doubt Drew Gardner is a communist, he is just confused about economics. Classical Marxist theory says that new value comes only comes from labor. Take land, add people, see how much food they produce. Now add capital, tractors, etc and they produce more with the same amount of labor. That new value came from capital. Now add knowledge, new ways to farm, production goes up again with same amount of labor. All inputs add value and all inputs, labor, capital etc can be over or underpaid.

  • D-man | April 2, 2013 11:55 AMReply

    "In order to concentrate wealth for owners, shareholders and managers, this surplus value is then concentrated into financial instruments and forms of rent that charge the workers who created the value in the first place. It is a parasitic relationship."

    Karl Marx could not have said it better himself.

    Go back to North Korea. Commie.

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