February 16, 2024

Karaoke Index

There are a lot of things I miss about Seoul, but the Korean coin-karaoke holds a spot near the top of that list. The original Japanese term "karaoke" translates to the poetic, "empty orchestra". In Korea, karaoke goes by a more straightforward, "noraebang", a compound word of 노래(song) and 방(room). As the name implies, noraebang is a space where singing takes center stage.

Absent are the interruptions of food service or the company of cheerful drunk strangers. What remains is only the essence: a mic, a TV, and four walls that demarcate a judgment-free zone. As a self-conscious introvert, I adore noraebang's utilitarian efficiency and cloistered escapism.1

Upon my arrival to the US as a teenager, I was perplexed about the strange lack of karaokes. "Do people here even sing?" It was on my first road trip, listening to my American friends' chaotic rendition of Don't Stop Believin', that I realized the error in my frame of reference. Just as Alpine shepherds do not need to yodel inside a box, Americans seem to have sufficient space to deem a dedicated singing room unnecessary. Then, the real question shouldn't be about the scarcity of karaokes in the US, but rather, why Korea is abundant with them.

Humans have been singing for a long time. Hell, even birds and crickets "sing". Perhaps it's in our nature to belt out some outdated top-40 hits. In that context, "singing space" could be construed a critical infrastructure for emotional release, a toilet for the soul, if you will.

In a densely populated metropolis like Seoul, private space is a rare commodity as is leisure time. South Korea is notorious for its lengthy work hours, as highlighted by the OECD data.

I think therein lies the source of the karaoke disparity between the US and Korea. In the US, karaoke is just one of many entertainment options. In Korea, it's a sanctuary for respite, borne out of necessity. It may not be a coincidence that the compact, efficient designs of Korean coin-noraebangs resemble public restroom stalls.

Drawing on this analogy, I propose that the number of karaokes in a city could be indicative of more than just cultural preferences. It reflects the urban desire for emotional release within the confines of city living. Thus, the "Karaoke Index" could serve as a metric for evaluating the city inhabitants' unmet need for privacy and personal time.

Conversely, I believe the Korean-style noraebangs could find a welcoming audience in today's American cities. As the dream of single-family homes becomes increasingly elusive and work demands grow, noraebangs may offer the comfort of space that is becoming scarcer by the day. After all, it's a tried-and-tested model that's served overworked Koreans over the past decades.

Despite its dystopian appearance reminiscent of my brother's Sims creations, I still get a warm fuzzy feeling when I'm alone inside a noraebang. I've yet to find a better way to unwind than to step into a booth, insert a couple of dollars, and lose myself in another ear-bleeding rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody.


  1. The noraebang I describe pertain to the small, coin-operated variant. Typical noraebangs can accommodate multiple people and are popular social venues. Additionally, traditional karaoke bars also exist in Korea, though they're less prevalent than noraebangs focused on singing.