My life in karaoke

Author Brian Raftery explains how a Japanese novelty has gone from punch line to worldwide pop-culture phenomenon.

By Sarah Hepola

Published December 18, 2008 11:30AM (EST)

It's been more than a quarter-century since karaoke arrived in America, and in that time, the humble Japanese import has inspired a lucrative industry (four new karaoke video games came out in the last few weeks alone), countless drunken singalongs and arguably the biggest pop culture juggernaut of the past decade, "American Idol." Not bad for a novelty that spent most of the '80s as a punch line.

Singing onstage in front of a cheering audience -- once thought to be the exclusive domain of rock bands and theater geeks -- is now just another Friday night in bars across the country, where performers both young and old, good and bad reinterpret standards like "Purple Rain," "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "I Touch Myself." The Chris Martins and Bonos of the world can keep their roaring stadiums, their Grammys and peace medals. Give the rest of us a microphone, a few bottles of liquid courage, some vintage Journey tunes and voilà: We are the stars.

Considering how visible karaoke has become -- at holiday parties, at sleepovers, as set pieces in Oscar-nominated movies -- it's surprising how little has been written about its origins. Until now, that is. Brian Raftery's "Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life" delves into the tangled history of the art form (and yes, it is an art form), from its rocky start in 1970s Japan to its embrace by everyone from trendy indie rock bands to Midwestern bridal parties.

The book is also a love letter to a hobby that became an obsession. "I was a wallflower. I was never really comfortable around women, or at house parties, or at cocktail parties," says Raftery, a contributor to Wired and Spin who began singing karaoke regularly after he moved to New York in the late '90s. "But I became different in these karaoke rooms. It strangely brought a lot out of me."

Salon spoke to Raftery by phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., which he shares with his wife, Jenny. His favorite karaoke song, by the way, is "Sister Christian."

Where did karaoke come from?

It started with a guy in Japan in the early '70s named Daisuke Inoue, who was a musician and not a very good one. But he was very good at what I would call being a middleman. He noticed that in bars there would be a musician playing and people singing along. If you were to streamline this process -- add more songs by having a machine, charging a flat rate -- there was money to be made.

He invented something called the Juke-8. It looks like a little speaker box with an eight-track machine. He would hire musicians and get people to write out these lyric books, and he leased these out. He hired these hostesses to walk into the bar and kind of discover the machine. Then they would hand the microphone over to these drunken Japanese businessmen.

It spread through parts of Asia in the '70s and came to America in the early '80s. Bar owners in New York and Orlando were hustling people to sing, but it didn't catch on at first, for a lot of cultural reasons.

I was trying to remember when I first learned about karaoke. The first time I can remember seeing it is that scene in "When Harry Met Sally," where Billy Crystal is singing "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" when his ex walks in.

Yeah, that was the first time a lot of people found out about karaoke. I think they're in the Sharper Image store, which is how karaoke was seen in this country for a long time -- this weird, yuppified object of conspicuous consumption. The equivalent of a vibrating chair.

So why was karaoke popular in Japan but proved such a hard sell in America?

You would think the reverse would be true, right? America is an exhibitionist culture. But in Japan, a certain part of that country's history is discipline and an attention to form. People practiced and honed one song, which they could sing perfectly, and it was almost like a piano recital. Also, even though it wasn't an extroverted culture, Japan always had these private rooms for performance [known as k-boxes].

But our country had this clear mark between professionals and amateurs: If you had a contract, and you were touring, you were a professional; otherwise, you were a wannabe. Americans aren't always forgiving to wannabes, and people were aghast at the idea of watching non-professionals sing. Part of the American culture is: Don't look like a fool. Don't be a chump.

So how did karaoke eventually catch on?

One of the reasons was karaoke's ability to just hang in there. It needed a younger generation. If you're 20, you grew up with karaoke.

They started marketing these at-home machines, and that had been one of the barriers -- people were too young to go to clubs or they didn't like being around alcohol or they were terrified of being made fun of. So now you can do it with your friends, you can do it by yourself, which helped coax people who were anxious. And the songs of the late '90s -- the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," those first Britney Spears songs -- they were made to sing along to in the car, in your room. How do you elevate it even higher? You sing it in karaoke. Remember this is a generation that grew up with Disney musicals, watching people their age singing professionally, and all of that helped pave the way for "American Idol," in 2002.

Wow, it only premiered in 2002? It feels like it's been around longer.

It feels like it premiered 300 years ago. It's funny that Simon Cowell invokes "karaoke" as a curse word in his critiques, but the "American Idol"-karaoke relationship is so intertwined, it's hard to tell who helped who more. I definitely think "Idol" has changed the way people view their role in popular culture. This idea that the kid two blocks down could have this hidden talent. And now you have really popular video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The division between professional and artist is much thinner.

Tell us about Sound Choice, which should be a familiar brand name for karaoke lovers.

Sound Choice is a company based in North Carolina that makes karaoke tracks. They have an in-house studio, and rather than just cheaply knocking off these songs, they had this guy who would try to analyze the songs in depth -- finding out what pedals were used, etc. That's a quality control commitment. They didn't have to do that. I always thought seeing their logo at the beginning of a karaoke song was a bit like seeing the name Miramax in the mid-'90s.

A few months ago they had to let go of some musicians. People have few qualms about illegally downloading music, so they have absolutely no qualms about downloading karaoke versions of those songs. So the karaoke industry has taken a hit, which is a shame. It's ridiculous to talk about karaoke songs as if they're a Phil Spector recording, but when you have the close-to-perfect version of a song, it amplifies your performance. You definitely notice the difference when you're singing some keyboard blip-bleep version of "Bohemian Rhapsody."

What's the story with those weird karaoke videos that often accompany the songs at karaoke bars? They're one of the great mysteries of popular culture.

In the '80s and '90s, companies would film these ridiculous live-action videos to go along with karaoke songs. The main point was to give you the lyrics, but they're also a diversionary tactic for the audience. If you're going up on a stage about to sing "Friends in Low Places" and there are 50 people looking at you and you're nervous and suddenly there's a dwarf in a cowboy hat, the odds are that people will be paying attention to the dwarf.

They made thousands of them, for 5 to 6 grand apiece. They had really fast turnover. You know, do a video for "Danger Zone" -- get models because they work for free, use every low-budget effect but have a story line. You end up with these unique visions of a song which were almost not at all what the musician intended.

["Austin Powers" director] Jay Roach has one credit [for the Barbra Streisand-Barry Gibb duet, "Woman in Love"]. I contacted his publicist, but he never got back to me. Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks is in one for the Doobie Brothers' "Black Water," though she's never spoken about it. Dylan McDermott directed a karaoke video for Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." They were filmed in these cities like L.A. and New York and Dallas where they had a steady supply of acting talent.

Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" is a classic rock song, and Bobby Brown's "On Our Own" from the "Ghostbusters II" soundtrack certainly is not. But as you explain in the book, Dylan's song doesn't work for karaoke and Bobby Brown's song does. What's the difference between a good karaoke song and a bad one?

Songs like the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," those mammoth rock songs, they're played out. And that Dylan song in particular is long and repetitive. I realize it's considered the top of the rock canon, but listening to someone singing it who's not Dylan? That's not interesting. I want something a little surprising and a little forgotten. Something where it turns out that -- not only do I remember the song, but I can sing along with it.

What karaoke songs do you hope you never hear again?

This is a clichéd answer, but "My Heart Will Go On." I don't even want to hear it done well. Maybe if someone set themselves on fire, I would be surprised. And I love ABBA, but I've just heard "Dancing Queen" way too many times. And that's a song I used to love.

What makes a good karaoke performer?

There's a practical matters of aesthetics. You have to be very careful when you're picking songs. You don't want some unexpected guitar solo. "War Pigs" is 14 minutes long, and it may seem great but pretty soon everyone in the audience is going to be wondering, why is "War Pigs" still on? One of the best karaoke songs I've found recently is My Chemical Romance's "Welcome to the Black Parade." It's this big, epic song, but you almost never stop singing -- unlike songs like "Stairway to Heaven" or "Kashmir."

And it sounds weird, but I really think the key is sincerity. I don't like to watch anyone pretend they're into it. Success really is divorced from whether or not you can sing.

For the most part, karaoke isn't a punch line anymore. But last week, Kanye West was on "Saturday Night Live," and he has this new album where he sings, and he's got a really bad voice. He's not a singer, you know? After the performance, people were saying it was like bad karaoke. That was how they dismissed it. But to me, here is this guy who realizes there's a limit to his talents, but he's putting on an impassioned performance. That's what's fun about karaoke. Passion trumps talent or ability.

Which is pretty punk rock.

And punk and karaoke have the same elements: performers who are not fully formed in terms of talent, and sometimes comedic, but truly enthusiastic. I love watching people reinterpret these songs. I remember the novelty of seeing Sid Vicious sing "My Way," but I've seen so many people reinvent songs over the years in karaoke.

You portray karaoke in the book as this earnest expression of music fandom.

It's the best form of music appreciation. I hear a song on the radio that I like, and I cannot wait to sing it in karaoke. I will go through every other ritual of a song -- I'll sing it in the shower, in the car. It is not until I go to a karaoke bar and sing it myself that I really feel like I own it. When I was in my 20s, I used to go to four or five concerts a night. Now I go, and so often I think, eh, I'd rather be singing these songs.

But isn't that kind of worrisome? Suddenly you aren't entertained unless you're the one doing the entertaining?

That's the weird power switch of our emulative culture. That's why real guitar players are pissed off about Guitar Hero -- you can find them in chat rooms complaining about it. At the same time, who are we kidding? We've always owned these songs. We made mixed tapes and performed these songs drunkenly. This is the best possible thing to happen to music. Maybe people don't want to pay for music, but they want to make it a part of their lives.

There have been offshoots -- movie-oke and live band karaoke and now Guitar Hero. Do you think the novelty of karaoke is wearing off?

It's hard to tell. I don't think so. The communal karaoke bar might be hitting its peak. Like a lot of entertainment, it'll shift to being at-home and slightly more private. I also think the way to go is live-band karaoke. You go to see a band and half the show is you getting to sing with the band. Only a couple of indie rock bands are doing it now -- Of Montreal, Ted Leo -- but it'll catch on. The way the music industry is right now it's a smart way for musicians to make ancillary money. Think about this explosion of rock 'n' roll fantasy camps for boomers, and how that could be applied to a younger generation. If Fugazi sold audience members a chance to sing with them, I'd buy that -- and I'm broke!

That's kind of depressing. I wonder what musicians think about this.

Well, I'm sure Ne-Yo isn't crazy about the idea. But a lot of younger musicians are into it for licensing, because ancillary income is something you're not going to sneeze at these days. And people who are in their 20s and 30s, they are open to a lot of musical ideas. I am sure Carrie Underwood has a karaoke past, as does probably every winner of "American Idol." I think the snobbery doesn't exist anymore.

What advice do you give to people who have never tried karaoke but might want to?

I suggest they start out with private-room karaoke, which is what they have in New York. Basically you go in this private room, which holds from five to 25 people. You don't have to wait a couple of hours to perform. You can hog the mike without being a mike hog.

Also, choose a song you're sure that you know. It sounds obvious, but I've seen people do a song like "Baby Got Back" and quickly realize they only know the beginning. I also know people who have practiced their karaoke songs for weeks, which is charming.

Go with a group of friends and know where they are and have them in your sightline. It's nerve-wracking to go onstage. I still get nervous sometimes. But you should keep in mind that people are not paying that much attention to you. You can make stuff up. They probably won't notice unless you just stop and stare.

And holy shit, don't pick "Freebird."

Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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