Technological Oddities: Lonely Flyers & Social Warblers

Jetpack Dreams – Mac Montandon, Da Capo, (fall, 2008)

Don’t Stop Believin’ – Brian Raftery, Da Capo, (winter, 2008)

Technological OdditiesMac Montandon’s Jetpack Dreams (Da Capo, $25.00, 272 pages) centers its propulsive pursuits around the solipsistic question, “Where’s my jetpack?” An answer, no doubt unsatisfactory to those who also long for the flying car, can be found between the crevices of our cultural touchstones. There’s certainly no shortage of jetpacks in Buck Rogers serials or James Bond films. And those who toil to fulfill these aeronautical fantasies do so with considerable overlap. (The same man who subbed for Sean Connery during Thunderball’s pre-title sequence also jetted above thousands for the 1984 Olympics.) Hopes for an affordable Model T-of-the-back have been crushed by the considerable expenses it takes to make even the hydrogen peroxide fuel, to say nothing of managing the unanticipated sky traffic. Montandon has chatted with hobbyists who spend thousands of their hard-earned dollars reproducing Bell Aircraft prototypes, but he doesn’t have the guts to tell us the truth. The jetpack is sleek-looking and inviting, but the very selfishness of its design cannot improve the human condition. To dream of the jetpack is to recite Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in a lonely garage.

The drunk who warbles his way through Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” may seem at first to be a sad and debilitating spirit working against human advancement. But Brian Raftery’s Don’t Stop Believin’ (Da Capo, $16.00, 288 pages) helpfully traces some of the social conditions that have drawn so many to karaoke on this side of the Pacific. Creativity and emotional spontaneity have flourished, and the empty orchestra has filled up with giddy opportunities to see the more playful side of an uptight friend.

Raftery’s volume is not a scholarly book, but a leisurely personal narrative that is even willing to investigate the fey films playing behind the highlighted text. Not only does the cowboy dwarf featured in Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places” video provide an absurdly literal image for the nervous singer to laugh over, but these films gave Austin Powers director Jay Roach his first job behind the camera. While the session musicians who perform accurate instrumentals for the discs are poorly paid, the karaoke industry remains good for business, employing KJs, club owners, and bartenders across the nation.

The phonograph’s rise certainly transformed musical culture, needling a shift from performed music to recorded music, but karaoke has stumbled upon an unexpected way to make performance matter again. The off-key singer who needs to get through a song does not generally seek fame or fortune, but this hasn’t prevented a few reality TV producers from sullying this social experience. Thankfully, these regrettable self-serving developments are offset by one hushed up side benefit: karaoke can get you laid.


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