On any given summer Sunday when the weather permits, Joe Hatchiban straps a pair of speakers and a laptop computer to his bike, then cycles over to the Mauerpark, a grassy strip of parkland running along the former site of the Berlin Wall. He sets up his sound system in a small amphitheater located in the center of the park. Hatchiban, employed as a bike messenger during the week, has been performing this weekend ritual since summer 2009. In the center of the semi-circular stone theater is a rounded slab of concrete that serves as a stage; from there 20 rows of blocky, concrete pews extend upwards, flanking the adjoining hillside and providing seating for an audience of several hundred. On a day with a good turnout, as many as 1,500 people show up, crowding around the stage in a dense semi-circle, covering the hillside like a blanket of kudzu. Hatchiban, an Irish ex-pat with a shaved head and friendly demeanor, serves as master of ceremonies for Bearpit Karaoke, the biggest and most wildly enthusiastic karaoke stage in Berlin.
There is something primitively ritualistic in the form of the amphitheater. The ancient Greeks performed their masked tragedies in such venues, while the Roman Empire built epic arena structures for populist entertainment, capable of holding audiences of up to sixty thousand. In the heyday of the Roman arena, audiences cheered as gladiators battled lions, ostriches and other exotic animals, and venues like the Coliseum in Rome could be filled with water so as to enact real-life naval battles.
Karaoke has a less spectacular history. The rise of karaoke parallels the technological development of multi-track recording; pretty much as soon as there was a separate vocal track, it was possible to mix this track out of the recording and create a karaoke backing track. Karaoke recordings were the inevitable by-product of recording in much the same way pornography inevitably sprang out of photography. In both cases, however, it is not enough to simply invoke technological feasibility as a reason for existing. There is also the question of supply and demand. People want pornography, and not just the glossy, professional kind. They want to see regular people, their neighbors or themselves, swathed in unflattering lighting and looking awkward. The karaoke impulse is similar: professional musicians strive to play the notes perfectly, to deliver a transcendent performance, to emote in ways beyond the ordinary. Audiences are tired of that. We’ve seen perfection too many times; the public has discovered that hitting the wrong notes and exhibiting no stage presence whatsoever can be entertaining too. Suddenly, everyone is a star.
Sunday in the Mauerpark is generally an overwhelming sensory experience. The popular flea market brings the place to overflow capacity, with thousands of tourists passing through, and the adjoining grassy field teems with sterling specimens of the city’s freak-flag flying populace. There is a lot of free-range entertainment, and wild amounts of talent on display: if you can keep your mind open and un-cynical, there is something graceful and virtuositic in all the juggling, unicycling and hula-hooping going on. It is like a spontaneous, anarchic, over-animated circus performance. There are musical acts everywhere too, playing with polished self-assurance. Many of these acts have CDs available which they hawk with witty, professional banter. You can imagine the hierarchies and in-fighting that must go on in the Mauerpark music scene, as the acts vie for lucrative corners and spare coins.
But it is at the semi-circular stone amphitheatre that the real action goes down. This is Andy Warhol’s prediction come to life: “in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” Warhol overestimated the individual’s fame allotment by about eleven minutes, but the basic principle is there. The karaoke atmosphere is relaxed and decentralized, the focus on the performer is intense but ever-shifting, with the spotlight moving on to the next contender the moment a song is over.
It’s a typical afternoon at Bearpit Karaoke: after a few rounds of the requisite tortured ballads and popular anthems, plus an off-key Britney Spears rendition that has the crowd screaming along in orgiastic glee, a couple of children, aged around five or six, take the stage, requesting to sing without a back-up track. They go through an a cappella rendition of a German children’s songs a la “row row row your boat.” The audience sings along in a soft, embarrassed mumble, but when the song ends they burst into applause worthy of a Van Halen concert. The children reel, stunned by a public response of such disproportionate enthusiasm. Hatchiban shuttles them off stage, and next up is a human beat-boxer, who slays the audience with five minutes of unassailable spit-spewing wizardry. The crowd is a jet engine roar of approval. The beat-boxer struts off stage in victorious accomplishment, ceding the mic to a teenager who nervously croaks her way through a song from the musical Grease. The crowd loves this too, bellowing unreservedly. Next up is a middle-aged woman, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans under a wild mop of frizzled grey-black hair, clutching the microphone with both hands as if her life depends on it, body contorted with the physical effort of pouring her entire inner landscape into an emotive rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.” The applause and enthusiasm remain unflagging. Mr. Hatchiban banters and makes light sardonic commentary between singers, but it is neither he nor they who provide the real show. The performance is just a backdrop for the real spectacle, which is the audience itself.