Amateur Ours

Who needs professional singers to have fun? Not the author of a new karaoke book.

How would you rather spend your entertainment dollars in our recession economy? By paying usurious Ticketmaster fees, imbibing overpriced drinks, and getting gouged at a tribal amphitheater/casino to listen to some has-been go through the motions on a song that might be lip-synched or pitch-adjusted, and then buying the concert T-shirt that shrinks three sizes in the dryer? Or by singing that one favorite song yourself for the benefit of a few good friends at your favorite neighborhood watering hole?

If, as the cartoon goes, no one knows that you’re a dog on the Internet, no one cares that you’re not Neil Diamond in a karaoke bar.

Professionalism, or its decline, lies at the heart of both those technologies. Everyone’s an expert, or pretends to be, on the Web, which has steeply discounted the value of many old professions—journalism among them. But journalist Brian Raftery, a contributor to Entertainment Weekly, Spin, and other publications, has no such qualms about music, as he writes in Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life (Da Capo, $16).

American Idol and the popular video game Guitar Hero have sold the idea that musical talent is no longer the exclusive domain of professionals,” Raftery observes, “but something that’s available to all.”

He’s right, and the democratization works both ways: How different are we, really, from voice-cheating pop stars like Ashlee Simpson or Britney Spears, who couldn’t take the stage without prerecorded guide tracks and mixing board–sweetened harmonies? They have multimillion-dollar digital audio tools at their disposal; we have knock-off versions of “Respect” produced by anonymous middle-aged studio musicians (met in the book) sans vocals, the lyrics transcribed by bored, gum-chewing secretaries for us to follow on the video screen. That, plus a few drinks to muster the courage to sing.

Not that Raftery needs many drinks or much encouragement to sing in Don’t Stop Believin’. (Don’t even try to stop him; the book includes appendixes of his favorite karaoke weapons, topped by Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian.”) This is his coming-of-age story, a personal account coupled with reporting—his observations and travels around Planet Karaoke. The phenomenon launched in Japan during the early ’70s (where the term derives from kara okestura, or “empty orchestra.”) Mocked here in the ’80s, karaoke is now what Raftery deems global, wholesome, participatory fun—performed by entire families at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Raftery provides a lot of enjoyable, albeit anecdotal, evidence of our cultural karaokization. Karaoke is “a multimillion-dollar industry,” he tells us, but so is Mariah Carey. Discount “song vultures” produce thousands of licensed backing tracks a year, but Raftery can’t put a number to the karaoke joints in the U.S. or tell us if that number is growing. The boom may actually be past its crest; he finds some song vultures closing shop and selling their catalogs, and posits that “the most unwanted trickle-down effect from the music industry has been its inability to thwart digital piracy.”

In other words, through illegal downloading, you can skip the bar and bring karaoke to your living room, where the drinks are cheaper and the bouncer never tells you to pipe down. Then there’s the entirely legal option of Nintendo’s wildly popular Wii, an even better choice for the under-21 crowd. But Raftery has nothing to say about such at-home technologies.

Raftery’s grail remains the songbook. As he travels from Manhattan’s Lower East Side—where karaoke becomes hip in the late ’90s—to Japan, Thailand, and Hawaii, he and other enthusiasts depend on the three-ring binder from which to choose “My Way” or “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” And though the lyrics may vary from country to country, the international idiom of, say, ABBA, is understood everywhere.

“Performing with an unknown karaoke track is a risk,” says Raftery. But the greater risk may be that fewer backing tracks are being recorded for fewer new hit songs, as Raftery reports. Though he doesn’t develop the notion, this is what used to be called the canon: the received and amended list of what is great, what is to be shared from one generation to the next. (Or something so fabulously kitschy and weird, like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that it must also be preserved.)

In our post-MP3, file-swapping era, Raftery writes, “When songs and albums are widely distributed but often privately indulged, karaoke is simply a communal form of music appreciation.” Yes—karaoke resists the iPod, the singing in the shower or car, the Bowling Alone shut-in atomization of our culture, the loneliness, the loss of community.

And though (again) Raftery fails to consider it more deeply, karaoke also takes us back to the church hymnal, the English pub song, the field workers’ call-and-response chant, the sing-song oral tradition of Greek epic poetry extending past history, literacy, or musical notation. It’s something transmitted and relayed—not simply a passive experience rendered as a commodity from the radio, CD, or iTunes store.

Yet this returns us to the same paradox: There would be no collective desire to croon “What’s Going On” without the common memory of Marvin Gaye having done so, perhaps first heard over AM radio in the ’60s or in your parents’ album trove 20 years later. Unexamined in the book is whether the rise of karaoke is related to the decline of commercial radio and of music sales generally. Is Generation K shunning conventional concerts and club gigs? Don’t Stop Believin’ doesn’t tell us. And surely the peer-to-peer nature of karaoke resembles dispersed social networking, another cultural link Raftery fails to follow.

More than anything else, Raftery makes me wonder if karaoke is chipping away at the shared edifice of song. Not that critics, original artists, or copyright holders should have total control over that domain. But I’m not sure—and Don’t Stop Believin’ gives no indication—whether karaoke is preserving, enlarging, or shrinking the musical canon. There’s an important, much larger book to be written on the subject, but Raftery never gets beyond the first verse.

Still, despite his book’s limitations, it’s hard to disagree with Raftery’s basic proposition: Skill is overrated, and the music stars or publishing houses who own the big hits tend to be overpaid. Given the price of flying to Vegas to see Prince in an exclusive hotel-casino residency (with bottle service), you’d probably come out ahead buying a Hyundai and driving to a local karaoke bar to sing “Raspberry Beret.” It might not sound as good, but it’s yours.