Don’t you hate it when you read a book—or see the title of a book—and say to yourself, “Dang! I could’ve written that!”
Happens every day, doesn’t it?
Happened to me just recently, when Da Capo Press sent me a copy of Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World, by Brian Raftery.
It’s also about how karaoke conquered Brian Raftery, which makes it more than a discourse on the sing-along phenomenon, which has gone from social pariah in the ‘80s to prime-time today.
I could’ve written that. Well, not the parts about Brian, who’s much younger than me, and whose musical tastes are also younger, heavier, punkier. But, like him, I love singing (or trying to sing), and know my karaoke history. After all, I was there, in the mid-‘80s, when the background music was still on cassettes, and singers read off lyric sheets instead of TV monitors. I’ve talked with artists who’ve done karaoke—and dug it. Like Huey Lewis, who told me about the time he was in New York, doing the musical Chicago on Broadway, and stayed at an apartment over a karaoke bar. One night, nursing a post-show beer. “And there was this guy on stage murdering ‘If This Is It.’” Huey couldn’t take it. “By the second verse, I was up there singing it with him.”
I’ve murdered songs, too. Back in 2000, I performed on the first TV show based on karaoke tracks: Your Big Break. It was a Dick Clark production, with contestants dressing up as—and impersonating—famous singers, from R. Kelly to Pat Benatar to, in my case, Bob Dylan. Scary.
But it was Brian, who’s written for GQ, Spin, and Wired, who got it done. He went from his karaoke haunts in New York—from private “K-Rooms” to singing in front of the Original Punk Rock/Heavy Metal Karaoke Band at Arlene’s Grocery, to Japan, the original home of kara (“empty”) oke (“orchestra”).
With wit, self-deprecation, and a combination of a reporter’s skills and a passion for his subject, Brian tells of his adventures in karaoke; its history, and its evolution from fad to phenom. I asked him to put its evolution in a couple of nutshells:
“It refused to die,” he said. “It came out in the early ‘80s and there weren’t a lot of places doing it, and there also weren’t a lot of people willing to get up and sing at that point, but there was always a karaoke night somewhere, and the companies put a lot of money behind it. And as long as they were making a little money, they kept going with it.
“Then, there was a generational shift. In the '80s , a lot of people weren’t used to the idea of a person who wasn’t a professional, being a performer. But kids who’ve grown up with karaoke their whole lives are more accepting. There was the teen-pop movement, and with (the MTV show) TRL, 13 and14-year olds were seeing people close to their own age singing. It made it seem more egalitarian.
“Finally, American Idol confirmed the feeling that, ‘I’m young, I wanna sing, I don’t care whether I have training, or can have a career in it, but it looks like fun.’ In the auditions, you see a lot of people who know they can’t sing, but still, there’s a lot of joy involved. It was kind of moving to see these kids singing Motown medleys and portraying singing as this wonderful, joyful act. That was a huge part of it.”
So much joy, in fact, that, as I thought back to my own times on stage, doing Elvis or Dino or Dylan, and watching a new generation digging it—whether in “K-Rooms” or videogames—I’ve decided to do a book of my own.
And I promise not to use a Journey song for the title.
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