Obsessing the Empty Orchestra

KaraokeDon’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life

By Brian Raftery

DaCapo, 233 pp., $16

Don Henley is, apparently, four-square against karaoke.

Do you want to be like Don Henley?

We didn’t think so.

Does this mean that you’re likely to run down to your local bar and belt out “Feelings” with some gusto in front of people who are undoubtedly there because they are there to reveal their own secret song stylings in public?

We didn’t think so, either.

“For years, I’ve employed karaoke as both a stimulant and an antidepressant, and I’ve traveled the world seeking out the perfect karaoke experience, whether it’s in a Filipino bar in Vienna or a wedding reception in South Dakota.” So writes Brian Raftery in Don’t Stop Believin’, a book that is as good as most karaoke performers are bad—excepting, of course, the performers at the Karaoke World Championship, which Raftery attended in 2007, in Bangkok. This guy goes the distance for his obsession.

Karaoke is a Japanese coinage, which, according to Daisuke Inoue, the man who developed the Juke-8, the first karaoke machine, in 1971—and, yes, Raftery goes to Osaka to meet him—was initially used in the 1950s, when Japanese theater musicians went on strike. The theater impresarios installed tape recorders in the orchestra pits to provide the music, and it was described as an empty (kara) orchestra (oka).

In the case of karaoke, the orchestra is there—or at least the music—but the singer is stripped out of the song.

You may think that you’re about as interested in reading about karaoke as you are in endless playings of Don Henley’s Greatest Hits. But Raftery’s self-aware obsession with what he describes as “one of the most widely disregarded artistic media of the twentieth century” (actually, he’s describing the karaoke discs, which he hunts down with the zeal of a hungry truffle hog, but you get the picture) is hilarious and engaging, and just the sort of book that should be read by people who exhibit other obsessive behavior, like reading, well, Glorious Noise.

2 thoughts on “Obsessing the Empty Orchestra”

  1. I have to admit that I’ve never ever done karaoke. I don’t think I’ve ever been drunk enough. And that’s saying something!

  2. I find that hard to believe. I, an admittedly terrible karaokier, think you would make a fantastic drunk karaokier. You’ve got pipes, and I’ve seen you yelling along to live music on many an occasion. I believe you have the power within you.

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