For those of you who have been or lived in Berlin, you will, in all likelihood, have spent a Sunday afternoon at one of the Flomarkht's - or flea markets, as we know them in English - and likely at Prenzlauerberg's Mauer Park - the biggest, and arguably (argued both pro- and anti- because of the shear insanity of goods and overwhelming amount of yuppies), the best.
After picking through records, vegetables, antiques, stolen bicycles, and the such, you likely bought a beer from an enterprising Turkish merchant, and followed the crowds along the greenway (which, as you may have known, traces the route of The Wall, making this an even more sentimental and important community spot), and come across an amphitheatre, slowly filling with hundreds of people, from hipsters to tourists...
In typical Berlin fashion, someone wheels up their modded cargo-bike, starts setting up two homemade speakers that have to be at least 250 watts each, along with a generator, a laptop, and a microphone… and starts nonchalantly soliciting dozens of karaoke submissions, all while you're barely cognizing what is happening, or that anything has happened at all.
Now, I've been to karaoke before, and gleefully subject others to my off-tune rendition of Wanted Dead or Alive (complete with preamble about how Bon Jovi saved my family), or coaxed 25 people onstage to do Fight for your Right to Party, and I've always realized how performative - and purgative - karaoke is… we've all seen the lonely old man in the corner of the bar amble up onto stage after three hours and four whiskeys to put all of us young wannabe Johnny Cash'es to shame.
But there is something about Bearpit Karaoke - being outside, having an audience upwards of 300 people, a DIY soundsystem, trying to read lyrics off of an old laptop screen in the glaring sun - not to mention the singing of predominantly pre-unification American Pop songs on the site of the Berlin Wall - that puts this event on a different level.
One thing that changes here, obviously, is the size of the crowd. While it may be that much more frightening - or exhilarating, depending upon your demeanour - to sing in front of 300 than 30 (unless its a LARGE birthday or staff party, I don't know that I've ever seen more than 15 people at a karaoke bar… but, I've never been to Tokyo), it is also that much easier to sink back into the shadows immediately following your song. When you sing in a bar, there is ALWAYS attention directed towards you directly afterwards, and this generally seems to amplify how you feel about your own performance, so slight uncertainties become nagging doubts, and medium idiosyncrasies become large extravagances. Here, your performance feels much more transient and anonymous. With the crowd reward higher and the pitfalls lower, it is possible to enable greater risk-taking and experimentation in the performance.
I have always equated singing karaoke with liquid courage - though this is surely in part with the realization that I am a horrible singer, and that I need to convince myself not to care and just have fun. This seems to change at the Bearpit as well - while the Bearpit has just as easy access to alcohol (beer) as a bar, at a substantially cheaper price (this is Berlin we are talking about, after all), people don't seem to get as drunk (maybe because it is Sunday afternoon?). The environment is busy and overwhelming, but simultaneously more laid-back, more civil. The event then seems to put more weight upon the performance of the song rather than the performance itself… people have to really be able to sing, and cannot charm the crowd just by being especially enthusiastic (though of course that helps). It feels that in this way the Bearpit makes the act of karaoke almost more exclusionary and less spontaneous.
Karaoke has the power to move us as little else in music does anymore - it is one of the last communal listening experiences that has not been modified by capitalism; concerts are often mediated by commercial forces, and tend to reinforce divisions between performer and audience; clubs and dance parties are entangled in several other problematic cultural readings. The phenomenon of the group singalong at karaoke events is fascinating in its unwritten permission that is granted the audience to impulsively provide a chorus, or even accompany the singer themselves. It is quite easy to anticipate how this changes at Bearpit - again, with that of scale. 300 people hitting the chorus with you, or clapping along, creates such an uncommon, uncanny experience that it is strongly emotional, and difficult to discount as a genuine community - and communal - experience.
Public performance is never an easy thing to do, or even easy to realize that we are doing it, pretty much all of the time. But it is really special when we encounter it, nonchalantly, on a lazy sunday afternoon; when it becomes a regular, stable part of a city's diaspora.