Guest Columnists

Better living through Karaoke

Richard Campagna sings karaoke at the Red Baron in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 2. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Richard Campagna sings karaoke at the Red Baron in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 2. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Over the years, many have asked me: “What’s a nice Jewish-Italian boy from Brooklyn doing in Iowa City?”

After 25 years of living here in the so-called “Athens of The Midwest,” I finally have a somewhat coherent answer.

The quick version is that Eastern Iowa, in its own laid back, relaxed and thoughtful fashion, has elucidated my path toward the integration of karaoke/live music and existential philosophy into love, life and higher education. Iowans have treated me with great respect and kindness and have been sincerely open to my philosophy of life and the path I have carved out for myself and my family.

My beloved adopted Hawkeye State has helped to inform that philosophy while enhancing my personal and professional development.

I was born and raised in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, the first son of a Russian-German-Jewish mother and an Italian Catholic father. I did everything my parents asked of me (and more) — personally, familially, academically and professionally. I traveled the world at an early age, studied multiple languages, cultures and religions and obtained various degrees and certificates in such diverse disciplines as: political science, Ibero-American studies, international law, legal, medical and psychiatric interpretation/translation, counseling psychology and existential philosophy. My parents encouraged me to attend law school and graduate school after college and I dutifully complied.

I moved my own family to Iowa City in 1991, protesting the crime wave and deteriorating infrastructure of New York City at that time. I raised my family here, taught at the college and law school levels (as the consummate itinerant adjunct professor), cobbled together a multidisciplinary consulting practice and ran for high political office on two occasions.

My friends and family affectionately refer to me as “Ricky C, The Optimistic Existentialist” inasmuch as I have dedicated much of my adult life to the creation and development of the aforementioned philosophical approach to life. In every course that I have taught over the years I have integrated “optimistic existentialism” into the syllabus, hopefully in creative and stimulating ways. I firmly believe that without a big picture philosophy of life in place, students cannot progress as well as they would otherwise in their chosen fields of study.


I am now in a phase of my life which I denominate: “Existential retirement’ and Eastern Iowa seems to be the perfect location to experiment with this unique approach. My adopted hometown of Iowa City is both a UNESCO designated ‘City of Literature’ and nearby Cedar Rapids is the self-proclaimed karaoke capital of America.

Briefly summarized, “existential retirement” includes but is in no way limited to the following elements: Low level of materialistic indulgences, acceptance of individual and collective free will, constant internal reflection and meaningful interactions with friends and family, avoidance of difficult people, constant self-analysis, participation in karaoke, YouTube videos and live music events, as well as the teaching of this methodology to both traditional college students and lifelong learners, in any available pedagogical venue.

My entry into the world of karaoke and the live music scene is of relatively recent vintage. But once I got started singing I immediately realized that pop and rock songs about love and life from the late 60s and early 70s fit in perfectly with my philosophy and my ‘existential retirement.’ My attraction to the music of my adolescence quickly proved itself to be a marriage made in heaven. Even my loving wife of four decades reluctantly agrees.

One precipitating moment for me has been reading from cover to cover, Rob Sheffield’s masterpiece: “Turn Around Bright Eyes — A Karaoke Journey of Starting Over, Falling In Love and Finding Your Voice.” According to the Los Angeles Review of Books, “‘Turn Around Bright Eyes’ is about music and identity and love and about how through hard times we manage miraculously to find each other and make something beautiful.”

While Sheffield utilized karaoke to lift himself out of despair, I use this musical technique to enhance and enrich an already optimistic life-style and coherent life experience.

Although totally bereft of any formal musical training, I was reluctantly nudged into performing karaoke and even live musical appearances after losing a friendly sports wager. My debt was to perform ‘After The Lovin’ by Engelbert Humperdinck as well as a pop hit of my choosing by the late, great Ricky Nelson, my namesake. “Travelin’ Man” was my selection.

Despite the appearance of frivolity and superficiality that has plagued karaoke since its inception as an art form, this musical vehicle is laden with lessons in existential philosophy and psychology; it requires significant social and strategic skills as well as a modicum of talent, memory, intelligence and creativity. If one is not careful, it can overtake your whole personality. And maybe that’s a good thing.

I now practice and perform karaoke at every reasonable opportunity and am always looking for new venues, songs, styles and new ways to teach others about how it can impact one’s life. Karaoke allows people to be themselves, to think ‘out of the box,’ to improvise, to be genuine and to dig deeply into their hearts and souls. It can serve as a glorious pathway to ongoing self-discovery.


As I have evolved in my existential retirement, I have expanded my horizons by constantly reshuffling my personal and professional deck of cards. My physical and psychological health are in excellent shape (aided by daily visits to the local gym) and I have created a series of participatory courses and seminars depicting my approach. These courses are in disciplines such as foreign language instruction, philosophy, psychology, American history, business law, political science and even medical interpretation. Elements of these courses include reading and analysis of existential literature and more ratiocinative works, viewing of films, YouTube videos, karaoke renditions, trivia quizzes, distribution of symbolic trinkets, prizes and trophies. Gratuitous peer counseling is generously provided for non-traditional students.

In conclusion, I urge all readers of The Gazette not to dismiss out of hand the multifarious elements of an optimistic, existential, non-materialistic and musical life-style and to incorporate as many of them as is deemed appropriate. Although relaxed and relatively hassle-free Iowa is an ideal launchpad for this approach, I believe such can readily be adopted and adapted in many cities and towns across this great country. I contend that Iowa is once again “first in the nation” as it embraces an existential, musical conversation.

From the hallowed halls of Ivy League institutions (discussing the existential literature of Dostoevsky and Sartre) to the family run bars and cocktail lounges of rural Iowa, belting out interpretations of the pop/rock tunes of Dylan, The Eagles and CCR, life can be genuinely explored and lived to the fullest. Neither venue nor vehicle is better or worse than the other — they simply provide different perspectives and modes of exploring and expressing life’s richness.

• Richard Campagna is a multidisciplinary professional, retired attorney and political figure. Comments:

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