“HE WHO TRIES TO SHINE dims his own light and he who clings to his work will create nothing that endures. Just do your job, then let go.” — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
“Streetlights, people / livin’ just to find emotion” – Cain/Schon/Perry, Don’t Stop Believin’
Friday night, my wife and I have tilapia tacos at Los Pollo Loco and head over to our favorite yogurt place.
“Wow,” she says, as we’re walking up. “What’re all these people doing here?”
As we step closer, I spot a mic stand in the corner jacked into a portable amp. Just next to the caramel toppings, there’s a twelve-year old girl in a star-spangled vest caterwauling “God Bless the USA.” I freeze with my hand on the door. The wide-eyed patrons wave us inside.
My wife, a sweet Southern Baptist girl whose speech is never less than gracious, shoots me a look and says, “Oh baby, hell no.”
We sprint back to the car and sit silent for a moment, the shock of a near-miss fading, the look on our faces like we’d narrowly escaped being clipped by a train.
“I hate karaoke,” I tell her, shaking my head.
But why? I don’t want to hate karaoke. It’s supposed to be fun, right?
So I call up Rolling Stone editor and karaoke enthusiast Rob Sheffield. He’s got a great new book out called Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke. Maybe he can help me understand.
J.M. Blaine: So you’re a karaoke expert, right?
Rob Sheffield: It’s impossible to be an expert. There’s no such thing as a karaoke master. We are all students and seekers.
(Note: Rob has a slow, deep laugh like the coolest character in a 70s stoner flick. He laughs a lot and it’s sort of infectious so just pepper the piece with that sound.)
I was hoping you could help me understand karaoke.
It’s supposed to a good time thing but I’m always uptight, thinking: Is this track even in my key? Am I gonna make an idiot of myself? I don’t sing this in E. I sing it in A….
Are you an actual musician?
Uh, yeah. And I live in Nashville.
Well, Karaoke is a beautiful thing because it lets anybody participate, even those of us who have no talent whatsoever. For those of us who the question is not so much: Is this in my key? as much as: Can I even remember where my keys are?
So how important is alcohol to karaoke?
Hmm. Karaoke can be done without alcohol. And occasionally it is. Karaoke is an intoxicant in its own right.
Noooo! That’s pushing it!
Followed by a histrionic insurance adjuster warbling “Purple Rain” and bursting into tears at Prince’s guitar solo.
These sound like beautiful experiences. I’m sorry I missed that. But I feel like I’ve lived them out on some spiritual level.
I sang karaoke one night down in Printer’s Alley. Room full of top notch singers, some famous. Everybody was awesome. In your book you write: The only real bores in karaoke bars are ringers who can sing. The closest you can come to unforgivably bad taste is competence.
That’s so true though! But people of different skill levels and nationalities and age groups can all mix it up together and bring their own special something to the karaoke table. It’s almost like a mix tape.
Paycheck songs are great for karaoke but Paycheck doing Lionel Richie? Whoa, that’s pretty amazing…. But you know, the ground is level at the karaoke bar. You don’t get any extra points for name or recognition you might bring into the room. There’s a great story in the book —
Yeah! So Robert is in this Chinese karaoke bar and nobody knows who he is. He decides to sing “It’s Now or Never” by Elvis and is certain he’ll bring the house down. But he loses to a Taiwanese guy singing Tony Orlando’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”
I love that story.
I think that nails it. Why actual rock stars love karaoke. The fantasy that even if they didn’t have the name and the myth that precedes them they could go anywhere, start all over from scratch and earn that legend back. Karaoke is sort of like slumming it on the ground with the troops.
So what’s that one sure-fire classic that works any time, any place, any karaoke bar in the world?
For me? Great, great man from the 70s, Mr. Jim Croce. “I Have to Say I Love You in a Song” has to be the closest you can get to a perfect karaoke song. Everybody knows it, everyone can sing along. It really only has, like, three or four lines. And the karaoke mentality is kind of summed up in the words. (sings)
Every time I tried to tell you the words just came out wrong
So I have to say I love you in a song.
We don’t come to this with any sort of expertise. Any knowledge has to go out the window. All you can bring is your own passion and verve.
That’s pretty Zen right there. Maybe karaoke is a lot more philosophical than I thought.
Yeaaaah…. Hey, “Mama Tried” is another perfect karaoke song. Two minutes long, big chorus and it passes that test – even people who’ve never heard it can sing along.
What song never works?
Some songs are just too hard or too sad. Like “All I Want is You” by U2. Great song, powerful song. But it seems to trigger something introspective in people. I’ve seen people try to do that one and the room gets kind of somber. Awesome song but man, it kills the buzz.
When you do “Stairway to Heaven” karaoke do they have an edited version or are you up there for eight minutes?
Nope, they have it with the guitar solo and everything.
I’ve seen people sing along with the guitar solo! (sings solo) Way-onNNnnnn, way-ohh. Widdly-widdly –woo!
Again: Can karaoke truly exist without liquor?
Ha! I used to go to a place with only two rules. No “Stairway to Heaven” and no “American Pie”. ‘Cause they’re too long and too slow. A lot of that 90s country – like when pop country was big? They make perfect karaoke songs. You remember David Lee Murphy’s “Party Crowd”?
Sort of, yeah.
You can take that one cold into a room of people who’ve never heard it before and everyone falls in love with it. Plus it has that karaoke message. People getting ridiculous, falling all over each other and having a good time.
Guess I thought karaoke was all bad versions of “Love Shack” and “Summer Nights”. So you can take a song that people have maybe forgotten and make it your own?
Totally. Another one that never fails is “The Boys are Back in Town.” It has a lot of words and they move fast but people get caught up in the mood and the story of the song. (sings)
Friday night they’ll be dressed to kill
(joining in) Down at Dino’s Bar & Grill!
Nope, you can’t sing that high but that just means the pressure’s off. Thing is, that’s one of those songs that nobody sings alone. The whole room is with you. That’s why Journey and Bon Jovi songs work so well. They’re designed to create this sense of community amongst strangers, three in the morning, arms around each other singing: hold on to that fee-lay-hee-leh-hen….
See, I thought it was like: I’m up here, alone in the spotlight, possibly making a fool of myself, so I really need to try to be good. But that’s not the spirit of karaoke, is it?
Nobody goes to karaoke to hear good singers, man. If you get one, it’s bonus — but that’s not what it’s about.
Since we’re going Karaoke Zen today, if people don’t go to hear good singing – what do they go for?
I think they go to see ordinary people turn into stars. To see ordinary people believe in themselves for just a few minutes. And that’s a powerful thing. Everyone has fears in their life where they don’t measure up. So in a karaoke bar you see regular people who’ve screwed up the courage to sing and for just a moment, turn into stars. It’s a beautiful thing to be part of the experience.
You know, the number one fear is public speaking. How much scarier public singing? And the biggest needs are unconditional love and acceptance. So I guess you can face your fears and be unconditionally loved and accepted, faults and all. At the karaoke bar. Rob, that’s pretty heavy.
That kind of hits it on the head, man. I think you understand now.
ROB SHEFFIELD is a columnist for Rolling Stone, where he has been writing about music, TV, and pop culture since 1997. He is the author of two national bestsellers Love Is a Mix Tape: Love and Loss, One Song at a Time and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut. He also appears regularly on VH1. He lives with his wife in Brooklyn.