Every time I lock my Toyota by pushing the car door away as I pull the handle toward me, I think, ah, Japan, you are a culture of contradictions: of politesse and militarism, sweet plum wine and fiery wasabi, one whose national sport (sumo wrestling) turns one’s opponent’s strength against him.
Could karaoke have come from any other country?
In his tribute to the phenomenon, Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life, entertainment journalist Brian Raftery seems to have interviewed every living figure in the karaoke industry, and most of them agree with the entrepreneur who says the product is “cute, but kinda cheesy.”
And it’s the cheesy part that comes first to the mind of those who don’t practice the fine art of bellowing off-key lyrics to a prerecorded soundtrack as their friends cringe and strangers rush for the exit.
In a 1992 campaign speech, George H.W. Bush referred to Bill Clinton and Al Gore as “the karaoke kids” because “they’ll sing any tune that will get them elected.” It was as though the mere association of the candidates with karaoke was enough to demean them, suggests Raftery.
Yet aficionados will tell you that their passion is for a form of self-expression that is far from “cute.”
Philosopher Kendall Walton notes that a child pretending to build a fort will say, “I built this big fort today,” rather than, “I pulled some branches and boards together and pretended it was a fort.” Diehard karaoke singers approach the mike with something of the same attitude: They know they’re not Neil Diamond or Madonna, but for three minutes and change, they can believe that they are.
The problem is convincing others.
Karaoke nuts are really geeks in hipster guise, which means they communicate best with members of their own tribe. Indeed, the geekishness of this book cannot be overemphasized, and to read about one of Raftery’s performances after another is a little like being trapped in a British Rail car with an amateur lepidopterist as he rattles on about netting a particular species of butterfly.
Yet it’s precisely Raftery’s enthusiasm that lends a certain charm to his passion for his calling (none dare call it “hobby”).
And nowhere does that enthusiasm manifest itself more than in the lists he compiles: the songs he has always wanted to sing but hasn’t, the ones he never tires of, 50 favorites, 30 he has never heard, and so on.
Historically, karaoke is one of those rare phenomena that can actually turn back the hands of time. The world rang with amateur singing, says Raftery, until the end of World War I, which is when prerecorded music became popular. Who wanted to listen to Uncle Lou mangle an aria when you could buy a version that featured a real Italian tenor?
Thanks to karaoke, today, passionate amateurism is back.
As with all cults, there are rules to karaoke, though something about it encourages you to make up your own.
My friend Mark says you’ll look better if you sing a bad song, which is why his favorite is Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died.” (His corollary is that you shouldn’t tackle a tune that’s too complex. Our pal Jimmy tried to do Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” with its 26 repetitions of the phrase “I know” in the bridge and got lost in the count.)
Raftery also counsels caution when it comes to songs that are too long.
Many a performer has died in the middle of Lynryd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” which goes on for nearly nine minutes.
To these I’d add a couple of rules of my own: Go for fast over slow (you can cover poor vocals with flailing) and share the shame (four singers harmonizing on a Temptations song allows one to miss a note now and then).
Mainly, though, know your key: Mine is G, which means I can do any Otis Redding song, if not quite as soulfully as Otis can. Almost, though.
Baudelaire said that genius is childhood recaptured at will. If that’s so, then Daisuke Inoue, who invented the first karaoke machine by mashing up a bass-amp speaker, a coin-slot device from a vending machine, and an eight-track cassette player, is a true genius.
Inoue makes it possible for me to be a teenager again, giving “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” my everything in a room so dark that I can just barely see all the guys who wish they were as cool as I am and all the women who adore me.
David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University and author of the forthcoming “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock‘n Roll.”