Think you’re bad at karaoke? Wait until you hear this computer mash-up

Karaoke, the world’s second- or third-best party and bar activity, is a musical game that centers on the oft-unholy combination of musical elements. Usually, this is a simple equation: a backing track plus your voice equals varying degrees of success. But what if karaoke drew on a wider range of musical influences? What if it combined its musical influences with elements of videogame design. 

That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind a karaoke machine created by Maximilian Lawrence. The artist created a machine that mashes up karaoke files. Since karaoke machines use MIDI audio, the different instruments in a song are separate and can be combined with instruments from other songs. Lyrical instructions, which are also stored separately, can also be mixed with instrumentation from a number of other songs. In Lawrence’s conception of karaoke, these words are voiced by your electronic device (think Siri), thereby producing real-time karaoke mash-ups. In a video describing his project, Lawrence concedes: “Most of the time, it’s going to sound like shit, I guarantee you.” But unusual moments of beauty can shine through, and that’s part of the project’s excitement. 

Lawrence’s apparatus also improves upon the graphics of your local bar’s tired karaoke rig. Gone are the words with a ball bouncing on top of them. In its place is a side-scrolling game, where a player (represented by a surfer) tries to surf the mashed-up song’s midi waveform. On another screen, an animated face composed of abstracted mouth and eyes sings along to the mash up. These two game-like animations inform one another: changes in music alter the surfing waveform and the face. If the surfing player crashes into the midi wave, the eyes defecate, because why not, I guess?

A hot mess that gets at the truth of the karaoke experience. 

Lawrence’s creation may sound like a hot mess but it gets at the truth of the karaoke experience. When you stand up on stage to belt out The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” a bunch of different elements are in motion: the lyrical visualization, the backing track, your vocal ability, your nerves, your alcohol intake, and your capacity to withstand public shaming. Success depends on all of these underappreciated forces lining up.

Lawrence’s project also makes the required alignment of music more explicit. He’s spinning plates with your mother’s finest china. Most of the time it doesn’t work but that’s not the point: excitement comes from seeing things line up that really shouldn’t. As Lawrence puts it: “If you do it well, it’s empowering … if you don’t, well, you laugh it off.” The mash-ups and graphic elements make this a more complex form of karaoke, but at its heart, it is still the same, great, party game.