Singing in Life’s Twilight: Constructing Rhythms of Elderly Time through Serious Karaoke

Event details

PhD Seminar

Date & time

Friday 02 March 2018


Milgate room A.D. Hope Bldg.


Benny Tong


Benny Tong

In February 2016, I arrived in Osaka, Japan to conduct a year-long field study at karaoke classrooms and karaoke kissas. These were two kinds of venues known in Japan for attracting elderly working-class fans of enka and kayōkyoku, popular music genres that had their heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s, but are now considered outdated symbols of a wholesome “Japanese tradition”. In this seminar presentation, I discuss the temporal understandings that elderly regulars at karaoke classrooms and kissas developed through their regular singing of enka and kayōkyoku, which they saw as a way of constructing meaning in their old age. I base my analysis on the idea of “musicking”, which understands musical meaning through the socially-situated processes and activities of musical engagement (Small 1998). I also view regular karaoke as a form of “serious leisure”, characterised by a continued long-term engagement in a leisure activity that provides a sense of fulfilment and well-being (Stebbins 2007). Based on these two concepts, I look at regulars’ interactions with both the music and with each other, and argue that regular karaoke allowed participants to construct highly complex senses of time in old age. Beyond a simplistic nostalgia for a wholesome “Japanese tradition, karaoke regulars developed more critical understandings of the past, attitudes toward and rhythms for living in the current moment, and a sense of hope to carry into the future. Looking at these regulars’ karaoke engagements, at both cognitive and bodily levels, thus provides new insight into the role of music as a cultural resource for growing old.

Benny Tong is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University. He researches on the musical participation of older Japanese at karaoke establishments such as karaoke kissas (cafes) and classrooms. He investigates the bodily, social and identity aspects of elderly karaoke engagements, to explore how karaoke spaces enable them to enjoy a sense of fulfillment (or loosely translated into Japanese as ikigai) in old age. Through this investigation into the hitherto under-explored field of elderly musical engagements, he aims to critique the Japanese postwar experience of modernity, and suggest an alternative model of growing old in Japan. Eventually, Tong aims to expand this research into a wider study about elderly musical practice and discourse in the Asia-Pacific region.

Besides his PhD research, Benny is also a tutor at the School, teaching the Spoken Japanese courses at beginner and intermediate level, and an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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