Go on admit it. You love Karaoke. No? Well okay, but you’ve at least done it. Everybody has at least once, right?
There is just something inherently irresistible about the opportunity to play rock star for one night in front of a room full of your mostly drunken friends. Can’t sing? No problem. As Brian Raftery points out in Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life, his definitive book on Karaoke, one of the rules that makes Karaoke such a beautiful thing is the fact that no one is paying attention to you sing anyway. Instead, they’re all sitting on pins and needles waiting for their own turn at the mike.
The thing is, as hilarious and just plain fun to read as most of this book is, I’m not at all sure the humor here is that intentional. You get the impression at times that Raftery takes this whole Karaoke thing quite seriously. Well okay, maybe not that seriously.
In the book, Raftery chronicles his own Karaoke experiences, which take him to Karaoke shitholes and other such places all over the world. He hangs out with a heavy metal Karaoke band. He follows another group looking to win the World Karaoke Championships. And he sings Karaoke ranging from Sinatra to Fleetwood Mac to Fugazi (yes, that Fugazi).
But he also goes into the actual history of the, umm, “art form,” as well as tracing the roots of its popularity in this country all the way from that lounge in your neighborhood’s local Chinese restaurant to the ultimate manifestation of Karaoke that is American Idol.
What I personally found most thrilling about this book was that he mentioned Dimples. That cemented Raftery’s cred as a Karaoke expert for me. Dimples is a Karaoke bar located right across the street from the NBC studios in Burbank where I spent many a drunken night during my two years living in L.A. back in the nineties. A guy who lived in my apartment building tended bar there and used to spiff me lots of free drinks.
What I remember most about Dimples was how seriously they took their Karaoke.
Some nights celebrities would drop by to sing (I once saw actor Treat Williams do a really bad Tony Bennett there). More often though, you’d get the regulars who were pretty much all professional Karaoke types. There was this one Karaoke group who called themselves “the Council” who sang there a lot, that I’m pretty sure consisted of genuine mafia wise guys. The old guy did Sinatra and Al Martino quite well. The younger guy on the other hand would really do a butcher job on Rod Stewart. Yet he always got the biggest applause. Like I said, I’m pretty sure “the Council” were all made guys.
One of the other cool things about Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life that I liked was the inclusion of some lists. These include Raftery’s “Fifty Songs I’ll Never Stop Singing At Karaoke” (his number one choice is Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian”). Despite the book’s title, the Journey hit doesn’t make the cut.
On another list, you’ll find his “Thirty Songs I’ll Never Find At Karaoke,” which includes such non-Karaoke friendly artists as Public Enemy, Funkadelic, The Replacements, and Glenn Danzig. Maybe I should tell him about the Karaoke bar I discovered a few years back that actually had Monster Magnet’s “Space Lord” and Radiohead’s “Optimistic” on the songlist. Honest to God, I’m not making that up.
I liked this book an awful lot. If you’ve got an inner-Karaoke guy in you dying to be let loose, chances are you will like it, too. If not, it still makes a great gift for that friend of yours prone to singing badly at parties and other forms of lampshade wearing fun.