Karaoke is At Least 50% Evil
David Byrne was reportedly the first man to sing karaoke in America. When the Japanese fad was introduced to America in the early 1980s, it is said that Byrne demonstrated the equipment at a New York premiere with a terrifying version of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
Whether that actually happened or not (I read it in Rolling Stone, so you can blame them if it’s a lie), it hardly matters now: There are at least a dozen karaoke bars within five minutes of wherever you are at this moment. “Whole Lotta Love” is just one selection among thousands, including Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” if Robert Plant feels compelled to even the score. The fad took, and the damage is done.
I don’t think karaoke is pure evil. Maybe halfway. It does some good — it brings people out of their shells and goes great with rum-based cocktails. Yet I can’t help but wonder if karaoke is doing us as much harm as it is good, like nuclear fission. The same heartfelt rendition of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” that brings a shy girl out of her shell can build her an ego big enough to audition for “American Idol.” Today, it’s “She-Bop” with a Long Island Iced Tea chaser; tomorrow, it’s “From Justin to Kelly” and the death of fun.
Also, karaoke perpetuates the unfortunate misperception, as old as rock and roll itself, that the act of making music is some sort of club, with dues to be paid. Karaoke supposedly waives those dues, giving you permission to sing in front of others even if you sing like a prisoner. (“Behind eight bars, and looking for a key” … but you’ve probably heard this one.)
But here’s the thing: You don’t need permission to sing in puiblic. You don’t need a microphone, a karaoke machine or a bar full of rummies. You could sing right now. If you know the words to a song, you can sing the bastard out loud. There are no file-sharing dues to pay, and no reality show judge can’t slap a gag on you. It’s one-hundred-percent legal, until such time as the RIAA figures out how to sue us for singing “Poker Face” in the shower. They’re proabably working on that, you know.
People used to sing aloud all the time — in unison, even. In many parts of Europe, they still do — in pubs, at football games, even at funerals. These people don’t feel self-conscious about their singing voices, worry that they’ll forget the words, or fear that Prince might hit them with a cease-and-desist. They only know that something needs to be said, and singing it is the only way it’ll come out right. Years of music industry myth-building, and shows like “American Idol,” has made Americans leery of raising their own voices in song — unless they’re in a karaoke bar, and there’s a whole lotta love in the room.
Ultimately, that’s where karaoke falls short for me. Your milage may vary on this, but to my mind, a reverb-heavy mic and a scrolling lyrics sheet trivializes the act of belting one out. I know that without these things you might forget the words, or that if you hit a bad note it sounds less awesome without the echo-echo-echo — but those mistakes are part of the point of opening your mouth. Singing is a reveal, a window on your character; it’s not a bar trick. And in an era when having borrowed music on your person can get you indicted, it’s an open act of rebellion. Have you paid Warner Chappell a royalty for singing “Happy Birthday to You?” If you haven’t, you’re technically breaking the law.
I apologize if I’ve offended any karaoke warriors out there. It wasn’t my intention. I’ve sang karaoke a number of times, and sometimes I’ve quite enjoyed it. But I’ve never confused it with real, naked singing, any more than I’d confuse late-night Cinemax with real, naked sex. For me, the only way to sing in public is to open my mouth and let it go — maybe without a band, a piano or even a damn kazoo backing me up. Maybe people will like it; they’ll probably hate it. Either way, they’ll secretly wish they’d done it themselves.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Yes, the author would love to join you for karaoke night. But he’s not singing any more tracks from “Grease.” Just forget it.