Tone-Deaf: A Personal History of Karaoke

Kevin Nguyen delves into the past, present, and future of karaoke, and speaks with Brian Raftery, author of Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life.

My experience with karaoke began with a misunderstanding and a tragedy.

The misunderstanding came from the common myth surrounding karaoke. Contrary to popular belief, karaoke isn’t Japanese for “tone-deaf,” which is something I believed until very recently. (That honor belongs to onchi, which translates to “tone-stupid.”) Karaoke is actually a combination of kara (empty) and okestura (orchestra) — coined in Japan in the ’50s when striking Japanese theater musicians were replaced by a cassette player. Even though the first karaoke machine wasn’t invented until the ’70s, the connotation is the same: this is musical fakery.

The tragedy, on the other hand, was far more personal. When I was seven or eight years old, I witnessed my father perform the Bee Gees’s “Tragedy” on my grandparents’ LaserDisc player in the suburbs of San Jose. His singing voice isn’t bad. Sometimes his accent, which is especially pronounced when he’s trying to hit the high notes, is actually endearing. But his impression of Barry Gibb’s girlish falsetto was at best tone-stupid and a strong reinforcement of karaoke‘s erroneous etymology. It was also the middle of the day. My dad was by himself in the living room, and I can’t remember if anyone was there when he started. This was the first time I saw karaoke in any form, and if I was lucky, it would be the last.

The first karaoke machine was invented by Daisuke Inoue in Kobe, Japan. Despite the fact that it was essentially a coin-operated bass-amp speaker with an 8-track player, the Juke-8 was an instant success. Karaoke machines matured and gained popularity throughout Asia in the ’80s, before finally making their way to the States by the early ’90s. But it wasn’t until the last decade that karaoke became a ubiquitous feature at American bars.

Brian Raftery’s Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life is part karaoke history book and part humorous, self-conscious memoir. In the second chapter, Raftery cites three major cultural milestones that marked karaoke’s growing acceptance in the Aughts: the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way” (the most karaoke-friendly song of all time), the massive success of American Idol, and Bill Murray’s karaoke performance of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” from Lost in Translation (“[Translation] is to karaoke what Watchmen is to comic books — a redemptive tribute for longtime devotees, and the perfect entry point for nonbelievers”).

But while those events perhaps proved how karaoke became more popular throughout the decade, it still left me wondering why people like karaoke.

When I spoke to Raftery on the phone, he attributed karaoke’s growing appeal to the changing relationship we have with music, namely the pervasiveness of pop music in our culture — in everything from advertising to hour-long dramas — and the way we listen to it.

“It seems weird to say, but more people like music than they did 15 years ago,” he said. “There’s just a natural desire, if you really love a song, there’s only so many ways you can express it. It’s not fun anymore with iPods. But you used to have a boom box or drive around blasting music, and now people have these intimate, personal moments with music, where they always have it with them and they always have earbuds in. A lot of it just seems kind of private. Maybe karaoke has benefited from the fact that it’s so public — a huge release and appreciation for music.”

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that karaoke is a way to celebrate music. Your favorite songs don’t necessarily translate to the best ones for karaoke. (For example, I don’t think Animal Collective is available at most bars, but then again, I’ve never looked.) But the lowbrow pop hits of the ’80s and ’90s must have some cultural merit if they are so perfect for karaoke, even if the experience is predominately nostalgic or silly. If music critics are identifying great works of art, perhaps karaoke identifies enduring cultural relevance in music.

During my college semester abroad, I wandered into Prague’s only sports bar. Why I left Boston, the sports bar capital of the world, to drink at a cheap, Eastern European imitation is beyond me. Legends Sports Bar didn’t have the working-class charm of an Irish pub; it was decorated like the inside of a frat house, a tourist trap situated a few blocks from the city’s upscale shopping.

But Legends was also Prague’s only bar with karaoke. I watched a group of Germans on stage sing scream punk rock staples — Blondie, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, etc. — as if to reinforce every German stereotype I’d ever heard. (At one point, they even sang “99 Luftballoons,” which I’m convinced is the only song that Germany has ever produced.)

After I overpaid for a couple of beers, karaoke suddenly seemed like a great idea. I got in line — my first time ever. I picked Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” I wasn’t sure how it would go over in a predominately pop-punk set list, but by the end of the song, the Germans were drunkenly singing along the final refrain with me. One even offered to buy me a beer to show his appreciation for my performance. It is both my fondest and fuzziest memory of the Czech Republic.

You might be surprised to hear that people do karaoke for a lot of different reasons that don’t involve drunkenly stumbling into an Eastern European sports bar. The most pervasive theory about its popularity in Japan is that karaoke is a way to unwind and let loose in a culture that has a reputation for being uptight and disciplined. It’s a bit of a generalization, but I guess I buy into that claim.

Recently, Raftery has noticed that karaoke is starting to attract people who actually see it as a way to become famous. Karaoke is good practice for singing in front of an audience and learning how to establish a stage presence. Last fall, Oprah’s Karaoke Challenge, a national singing talent search, awarded one winner a quarter million dollars and the chance to record a song with label Island Def Jam. And let’s not forget Taylor Swift, karaoke’s biggest success story, who got her start singing country covers at a mall in Pennsylvania.

But not everyone is there to let loose or get famous.

Raftery added, “And also, not to be crass, do not discount the fact that some people do karaoke for the same reason they start playing guitar in high school: to meet members of the opposite sex.”

This is not a phenomenon I’ve witnessed personally, but clearly one I need to try. Raftery elaborated, “It’s a huge shortcut to get to know someone if you see them get up on stage and play a song you love. You’ve accomplished a lot by singing that song. You’ve gotten people’s attention.”

Illustration by Melinda Boyce.

Illustration by Melinda Boyce.

How do you celebrate your 21st birthday when you’re sick of going to bars? I had returned from Prague a week earlier, where I’d been able to drink great beer at better prices for the past semester, so the novelty of ordering a five-dollar Bud Light didn’t feel like such a milestone.

And honestly, I’d rather have my birthday go unnoticed. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I haven’t been fond of birthdays since Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, died the day I turned sixteen. The wall clock in my room stopped working that day, and I had the bizarre notion that that was exactly the time Strummer must’ve passed. The idea is as stupid as being a teenager in the ’00s and deciding that the Clash’s London Calling is your favorite album of all time.

Though it may seem juvenile in hindsight, I had a sentimental connection with music that I no longer possess. Maybe I’m too self-conscious, or perhaps just too old to really feel that way about an album anymore.

So as a compromise, my friends took me to a karaoke place just outside Boston. It was my first in the States, and the first in a k-box, a private karaoke room. Unlike Legends, I was performing for an audience of my closest drunk friends, rather than strange, drunk Germans. At some point in the night, I did “Train in Vain (Stand by Me),” the last track on London Calling. And while karaoke may seem like an extremely dorky way to celebrate one’s birthday, it was a fitting tribute to Joe Strummer.

Last October, I found myself staring longingly at the exhibition display for Beatles Rock Band. I was at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, the country’s largest public videogame festival, where there were five different stages set up to demo the game. Conference attendees performed in front of a long line of people waiting to play it themselves.

In a panel later in the day, I watched as Harmonix, the team behind the first two Guitar Hero titles and the Rock Band series, unveiled the future of music videogames: the Rock Band Network, a system that allows any artist to transcribe their music and sell it online to Rock Band players. Over a year in the making, one of the Harmonix panelists joked about how the project went under a misleading working title — Rock Band Nickelback — to avoid piquing the interest of the game’s most fervent enthusiasts. It was the inevitable answer to anyone who’s ever wished their favorite song was playable in Rock Band, but what it really meant was that the music catalog was about to get a lot bigger.

While the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises boast somewhere around a couple thousand songs between them, that number has always paled in comparison to the song selection at a typical karaoke night. While it took karaoke three decades to penetrate mainstream American culture, music video games did it in merely three years. But is Rock Band the future of karaoke, or the end of it?

As transformative entertainment, The New York Times said that Beatles Rock Band “may be the most important video game yet made.” No one’s denying that music video games aren’t changing the way we consume and appreciate music, but our relationship with music has been making X-Men-sized evolutionary leaps over the past decade.

“I don’t think it was anywhere near as participatory as it is now.” Brian Raftery said. “It’s almost ridiculous now how much people take for granted that when Guitar Hero came out, people were kind of afraid of it.”

Raftery went onto explain that when Guitar Hero was first released in late 2005, guitar-playing forums treated the game like it was the apocalypse. The rationale was that no one would play real guitar anymore, when you could so easily fake it on your Playstation.

“It was so alarmist and completely antiquated that it was almost charming how protective they were. But the exact opposite has happened. I think the more people you have playing Guitar Hero, the more people you have playing guitar.”

Personally, I know my younger brother can thank the countless hours he spent mastering Guitar Hero on the expert difficulty setting for his interest in both music and bass guitar. But while the parallels between karaoke and Guitar Hero/Rock Band are obvious, what’s more interesting are the differences, which only became apparent to me recently.

Last Christmas, the same brother unwrapped DJ Hero, the latest entry in Activision’s Guitar Hero series of music games. The concept is similar, but whereas the guitar, drums, and vocals of Rock Band are at least intuitive, DJ Hero involves scratching, button-pressing, and knob-turning on a fake turntable, a far more abstract experience. (And for anyone who has a vague sense of how turntables work, the game is dreadfully inauthentic.) In fact, DJ Hero reminded me of a fancy version of Bop It or Simon Says set to a Rihanna remix.

Those who know me well know that I adore Rock Band. (Senior year of college, my ideal “low-key” Friday night involved belting the Strokes’ “Reptilia” as loudly as possible and then fighting with my girlfriend because she wouldn’t play the drums.) But while DJ Hero is more or less the same concept — do what the screen tells you — what makes Rock Band so much more fun? Is it a more convincing sense of imitation? Or is it that Rock Band is just a little bit more like karaoke?

“With Rock Band or any of those games, if you do badly, you eventually get booed. There’s a right way to do that, and a wrong to play those things,” Raftery said. “It requires more discipline. I don’t think karaoke requires a huge amount of discipline in learning.”

For a while, I had considered Rock Band to be an evolution of karaoke, but the more I thought about it, the less true that notion started to sound. At the end of each song, the game shows individual players the percentage of notes hit correctly. Even for Rock Band‘s vocal parts, doing your best David Bowie impression on “Suffragette City” instead of singing the song straight will hurt your score. But of course, this never stops anyone from trying.

The fact that Rock Band is a game means you play it like a game. Yet the thrills are obviously much greater than the satisfaction of hitting colored notes in the correct order. Though Rock Band is goal oriented by design, the game is much more fun with close friends and a few beers. It’s not really about trying to get a perfect score. The rewards are more akin to those of karaoke, or it’s at least one of the many rewards karaoke offers. The experience depends entirely on what the person wants to get out of it, and for that reason, in many cases it has very little to do with singing well.

“It’s interesting that we have come to treat [music videogames] as a normal thing now, whereas four or five years ago, we had this distinct line between people who created culture and the people who consumed it,” Raftery said. “I think it’s great. I’m all for the egalitarian popular culture.”

Karaoke isn’t strictly about singing poorly, but it’s the only singing activity where your vocal prowess doesn’t necessarily matter. In that sense, maybe we should just keep pretending that karaoke translates to “tone deaf.”

While karaoke, for some, might be about getting attention, it’s also about not giving a crap about what everyone else thinks. It embodies a handful of conflicting qualities. Karaoke is personal yet public, fun and annoying, fake while being entirely genuine at the same time. Though much of the fun in Rock Band is similar to that of karaoke, they will always be more different than alike. Rock Band punishes you for anything less than flawless imitation; karaoke is about taking a song and making it your own. Thinking back to that moment when I watched my dad sing the Bee Gees, he might not have sounded great, but he was definitely enjoying himself. And there’s something admirable about that.

Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life is available from Da Capo Press.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.