'Don't Stop' Sings Karaoke's Praises

Journalist Brian Raftery says it's OK if you hate karaoke, but that doesn't mean he has to. He sees democracy in a bar packed with would-be singing stars crowded around a karaoke machine. In his book, Don't Stop Believin', he writes, "nights like these ... forever changed my life."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Brian Raftery doesn't have to - doesn't think he has a good voice, but even so, he keeps a list of the 50 songs he will never stop singing at karaoke. His new book, "Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life," chronicles his decade-long obsession with sing a long with the bouncing ball. The book is an ode to the role karaoke's played in his life, as the backdrop to friendships, relationships, and jobs. And it's a history of the curious Japanese pastime that spread deeply into American culture. We'll talk with Brian in just a moment.

And we want to hear from you. Has karaoke changed your life? Tell us your karaoke story, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation at our Web site. You can go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Brian Raftery joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on Talk of the Nation and Happy New Year.

Mr. BRIAN RAFTERY (Author, "Don't Stop Believin'"): Happy New Year. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you describe how karaoke, when it came these shores, was greeted with derision, even contempt. Did you feel the same way?

Mr. RAFTERY: You know, when I was growing up, it was actually more of - just sort of an alien, unknown entity to me. I mean, I would hear about it, but it came to, you know, America in the early 80s, when I was only about six or seven years old. So, it was sort of this thing that grown-ups supposedly did that I never really saw but sounded interesting and also terrifying at the same time.

CONAN: Terrifying?

Mr. RAFTERY: Well, I think just the idea of getting up in front of people, and especially by the time I was 10 or 12, even though I wanted to be, you know, a real big pop star, which was my childhood dream…

CONAN: Yeah, me, too, (Laughing) at 11 or 12.

Mr. RAFTERY: Yeah, yeah. I'm still waiting for it to happen. I don't know about you, but…

CONAN: (Laughing) Me, too. Yeah.

Mr. RAFTERY: Yeah. I mean, I realized very early on, kind of through the cruel, you know, non-professional music scene of junior high school and high school, that it was not in the cards for me to be a professional singer. And so therefore, the idea of getting up and actually singing in front of people was very scary and very foreign to me.

CONAN: You describe a couple of the early entrepreneurs of karaoke, including a guy named David Bellagamba, an Orlando-based entrepreneur, who had a really difficult time trying to get people to break through the wall, leave the audience and come on stage.

Mr. RAFTERY: Yeah, I mean, he really describes it as hustling the audience, which a lot if these guys had to do. They were very early believers in karaoke in the early 80s, because it had done so well in Japan and gone through Asia. And they brought it to America and were kind of surprise when they would bring this giant machine out to a bar, that they were presuming people would want to get up and sing all night, and they would just get blank stares, you know. If people had brought in crickets, you probably could've heard them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There was another guy you write about. He is Ernie Taylor, the founder of a Los Angeles karaoke company who's - could not convince bars and nightclubs that there should be a karaoke night.

Mr. RAFTERY: Yeah, I mean, I think there was a little bit of a stigma, first of all, because it's such a weird foreign word at that time. And I think also people were sort of wondering, you know, if you're going to have a bar, you want a guarantee you can get people to come in. And I mean, you go to - imagine going to a bar owner in 1983 and saying, hey, so, I have this singing machine and if all goes well, 10 people will get up and sing their songs to this little backdrop. I mean, I can see why some bar owners may not have been too thrilled about the prospect of having that on a weekend night.

CONAN: Now, all of us remember, if we're old enough, cartoons and shorts at the movies back in the old days - sing along with the bouncing ball. But that was sort of sing along as a group, as a collective. It's something else again when you ask Americans to get up on stage.

Mr. RAFTERY: Oh, absolutely. And I think, you know, Americans also sort of had this image, despite the fact that Americans are kind of known for being showy and, you know, kind of an exhibitive culture. I really think that the sort of lounge lizard image that was projected by - you know, exemplified by Bill Murray on "Saturday Night Live," I think that scared a lot of people. I mean, I think they'd think of a karaoke bar in the early 80s and they'd hear of this, you know, tiny club where this one guy is getting up to sing, and, you know, he's not really professional. I mean, I think that scared a lot of people. They didn't want to seem as kind of, you know, obliviously cheesy as Nick, the lounge singer, did.

CONAN: Well, when did you break through the wall? When did you first get up on stage?

Mr. RAFTERY: I actually had a friend in college and our last year, one of my best friends went to Japan for a few months and came back, you know, from the karaoke motherland as it is, completely obsessed with karaoke. So, we were at school in Penn State and we found a sports bar one night that was having karaoke. And despite the fact that I had absolutely no intention of getting up to sing, somehow he convinced me to get up there. And I think we sang as a group and there's some - to this day, there's still some controversy as to what song we actually performed. I'd like to think that it was, you know, an old Motown song, though I think it may have actually been something, you know, like "The Humpty Dance" or some terrible 90s rap song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAFTERY: But, you know, I got off stage and I said, wow, that was really amazing, and I had this rush, and I am never, ever doing that again. And then a few weeks later, I moved to New York and we wound up just going to karaoke. And it kind of became our sort of little mini-adventures around the city in our early 20s.

CONAN: And you describe how, at some point, it became the subject of a nationwide explosion and you had to stand on line in front of your own little club.

Mr. RAFTERY: Yeah, I mean, when we first moved to New York in 1999, there was really only one great karaoke bar downtown, which was this private karaoke room, which is different than some people are used to. But there's - they're called K-boxes, they're the style of karaoke in Japan. And basically, you get a really tiny room with a remote control and, you know, a drink order and you can sort of hangout with your friends for a while.

And when we first started going there, I mean, we would get discounts. They would beg us to sort of come in and stay for a while. And then a couple years later, we would go in and there'd be a bouncer, there'd be these lines. And all of a sudden, it seemed as if all these people who didn't want anything to do with us when we were doing karaoke, were now sort of booking these rooms before we could.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in to talk about their karaoke experiences. 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. Carmen, Carmen is with us from Warsaw, Indiana.

CARMEN (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi, Carmen.

Mr. RAFTERY: Hi.

CARMEN: So, I never did karaoke before until about 13 and a half years ago. My husband and I went to our company Christmas party, and after a couple of drinks, we were dared to get up and sing. So, we sang "La Bamba" that night, and nine months later, our eldest daughter was born.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARMEN: So, it was definitely the start of a great relationship.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Did you call her Richie by any chance?

CARMEN: No, we didn't. Her name's Victoria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But does she know this story now?

CARMEN: She does not. Now, when I play this back in the Internet for her, she'll learn it for the first time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, if people are too embarrassed by - to get up and sing a karaoke some night, I think you will find a new shade of red on your daughter's cheeks when you…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARMEN: I think you're probably right, but I definitely am a big karaoke fan now.

CONAN: Are you going to go out and do it tonight for New Year's?

CARMEN: You know, that's a great question. I'll need to ask our party host if they're having karaoke because I don't know.

CONAN: All right, Carmen, thanks very much.

CARMEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let see if we can go now to Hannah, Hannah with us from Sacramento.

HANNAH (Caller): Hi. I have not done karaoke in a bar, but we have a karaoke machine and we do it at home and have done it with friends. And just was talking with screener about getting together with a group of people and, you know, people that you've known for a long time. And it's kind of interesting to see the dynamics when the karaoke machine comes out and some people get a little uncomfortable about it. And it's like, I've seen you, you know, in all sorts of different situations and you don't want to sing - you know, they'll find a reason to leave the room or something.

CONAN: Yeah.

HANNAH: It's just kind of interesting how it can be one of these things where people don't want to maybe make a fool of themselves or feel silly. I cannot sing and I'm not shy, so it's a bad combination for the listener. But it's fun and it's just kind of interesting how sometimes people can't, like, let their guard down and just, you know, realize they're not going to be, you know, a pop star, but just have fun with it.

CONAN: Brian Raftery, is there some way to convince people that they should get up? Why are people so shy?

Mr. RAFTERY: Well, I think that's changed a lot. I mean I think there's certainly been kind of a generational shift. One of the things that I think really helped karaoke in America was in the late 90s, when all these teen pop acts took off. And around that time, you had all these young people singing and kind of growing up without that stigma of singing in public with your friends.

The karaoke industry very wisely started making these very cheap at-home machines. So, they hooked this really young generation of singers who couldn't go to a bar but who could sing at home. And I think, you know, I think the stigma, I mean, for lack of a better word, I think karaoke's been kind of de-weirded in the last five or 10 years. I don't think it as big sort of intimidating force as much as it used to be. And I think there's maybe a couple of holdouts left. But I think they'll eventually be converted in the next couple of years.

CONAN: Hannah, thanks very much for the call. Better luck next time.

HANNAH: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to Jeff. Jeff's with us from Phoenix.

JEFF (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

JEFF: Good, good. I was calling - my daughters actually went into a - and I didn't know if Brian knows anything about this - into a recording studio. It's kind of karaoke meets the Internet age. And there's a thing called mystudio.net, and it's a recording studio. And they've actually got it in a mall here in Scottsdale, Arizona. And you can go in - it's - you pay your fee and you actually do a karaoke song, or you can bring your own music, too, and do it on - in front of a green screen. You can put any background you want. And then it immediately downloads it to the Internet and then they have like a Facebook kind of page where you can go and put in your profile and look at other videos and other things. Have you heard about that at all?

Mr. RAFTERY: I have, actually. I mean - and I think they have these big, high-def sort of backdrops you can insert in the back of - while you're singing, which is really amazing. I mean, to think that, you know, there used to be these little karaoke machines at malls and boardwalks like 20 years ago where you would just go in and get a very cheap cassette recorded. And you go into a booth, put your headphones on and, you know, pray that one of the 10 songs they had was a song you liked.

But I've seen mystudio. I actually haven't seen it in person, but it's amazing to me that you can actually go now into a mall and get this giant bank of songs and just do whatever you'd like with it. And then instantly share it with your friends, which I think is the next step in karaoke's evolution, as it were. I mean, online karaoke has really exploded in the last couple of years.

JEFF: Yeah, I was - my daughters actually - the song selection - obviously, my daughters going in and I think because of - I'm just guessing here - because of the rights of the songs and stuff - the song selection wasn't that great. So, they had to find a song that they knew. They actually went in with my younger brother and did this song as a birthday wish to my dad. And the only one they could find was a Nena's "99 Red Balloons." And then the background had the balloons like going up, you know, behind them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEFF: So, it was really a neat little thing and my brother is into the whole music scene, so he understood the whole workings and how it was going to function. So, he was trying to give them direction - no, don't look at the camera, look at…

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEFF: You got to look at the camera not at the monitor screen. And then they started trying to pop the balloons behind them in the screen. It was really cute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Brian Raftery about his new book, "Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's go with Kawika(ph), Kawika with us from Portland, Oregon.

KAWIKA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

KAWIKA: I just wanted to point out that in Hawaii, it's a little bit different because when you go out and karaoke, it's not necessarily you get up in front of a bunch of people. When you go to the bars, they have wireless mics where they'll bring the microphone to you and you can sing from your booth with your friends, instead of getting up, if you're a little apprehensive about, you know, showing off in front of a bunch of people.

CONAN: I also note that they pronounce the word correctly.

Mr. RAFTERY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAWIKA: Yeah, yeah. We have a lot of Asian influence there, so it sometimes, you know, carries over.

Mr. RAFTERY: Yeah, I mean, actually one of the first times I ever heard of karaoke - or kah-rah-oh-KAY - was - I was living in Hawaii as a kid. And one night my dad went out and the next morning we heard about the fact that my dad had gotten up in this bar and performed a song. I think he sang "New York, New York" by Frank Sinatra, which - you know, I was about 10 years old at that time, and it absolutely amazed me that, you know, a, my father, who - from whom I probably inherited my lack of amazing singing talent…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAFTERY: Would actually get up and sing and, b, that there was a place where you could go and sing and song in front of people. It was really interesting to me.

CONAN: Kawika, thanks very much for the call.

KAWIKA: Yeah. Thanks. Happy New Year.

CONAN: Happy New Year to you too. And let's see if we can go know to Cindy Lee in Eufaula, Oklahoma.

Ms. JANICE BEST (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Cindy Lee.

Ms. BEST: Actually, this is Janice Best(ph) in Eufaula, Oklahoma.

CONAN: OK.

Ms. BEST: But - thanks for taking my call. I'm always a big fan. But I was telling your screener, about 17 years ago, my first experience singing karaoke was in a bar in Paris. And I'd gone on a company trip and I'd always sung for church and banquets and different things and entertained. I'd never done that. And so, I told him, you know - my 21-year-old son went with me and to see his face…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEST: Of his mother standing up in a bar in Paris singing karaoke was pretty priceless. He doesn't get embarrassed of me anymore. But I told to him that about eight years ago we move from Oklahoma City down to this rural community and karaoke is a big deal. They have karaoke like five nights a week everywhere you go. And when you go in, you know, for me, I like to just get up and sing and have a good time. And it's so serious - people come in with their whole portfolio of their own CDs.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. BEST: Like, a three-inch book full of all of their own music and they are so serious about it. And so the first time, I said, are you guys like in a contest or something? No. So, you don't win anything? Nope. But they will go night by night to all these different places with all of their whole portfolio of their own music. It's just really fun to watch.

CONAN: What was the name of the song you sang that night in Paris?

Ms. BEST: Actually, it was a Patsy Kline song called "Walkin' After Midnight."

Mr. RAFTERY: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah, that's going to be on every karaoke machine everywhere around the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEST: Yes, exactly. And you know, they give you words, so how hard can it be? And actually, I sang that song at a convention then - I thought, you know, if I can sing in Paris, I can sing anywhere…

CONAN: Of course.

Ms. BEST: In Las Vegas at our national convention and did that song. So, you know, it's everywhere. Everybody loves - the songs that are on karaoke, everybody knows.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

Ms. BEST: Yeah. Thanks. Have a great year.

Mr. RAFTERY: Thank you.

CONAN: And Brian Raftery, we'd like to thank you for your time today.

Mr. RAFTERY: Thank you so much. This was great. Happy New Year.

CONAN: Happy New Year to you. Brian Raftery's book is called "Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life." In honor of your song - we do credits at the end of the year to recognize the people on this program and well, we adapted Roger Miller's "King of the Road" and, well, this is my singing debut, so - on the radio - please, bear with me.

(Soundbite of Neal Conan singing the credits to the tune of "King of the Road")

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