Karaoke can seem like a deeply goofy pastime. Getting up in front of strangers, singing your off-key heart out to Madonna, vamping like you’re Freddy Mercury in your business-casual duds. But a new memoir by the Rolling Stone columnist Rob Sheffield, Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke, convincingly makes the case that karaoke is a kind of emotional release, and in some ways, can heal the soul.
This personal story through the frame of Sheffield’s karaoke exploits: Recently widowed, he moved from Virginia to New York in the early aughts to try to mend his heart and move on from the tragedy of his wife’s death. There, in the dingy, sweat-stained basements of Koreatown and the Lower East Side, Sheffield says he goes on a “spiritual quest” a “fix of that transcendent experience we can only get from singing.” Through nights of Bonnie Tyler, the Kinks, Kiss and the Beatles, Sheffield digs out of his sadness, and meets the woman who’d become his second wife.
With his decade plus of karaoke mastery, Sheffield schooled us in what makes the best karaoke experience, including the greatest karaoke scene on television and the worst song to do in front of your friends.
A great karaoke experience is a matter of picking a song that goes with your voice and the mood. It’s very much about the moment, so you can’t plan too much in advance. You have to open the door and let the karaoke dragon come through. I like to start with David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” because it reminds me what karaoke is about—musical transformations that can create emotional transformations as well. I also like to do Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.” It tests your range, so you can find out whether your voice is strong or delicate tonight, or if you want to be smooth or crooning. That song teaches you what you’re capable of, and with it you can feel the temperature of the room. If you do “Little Red Corvette” and people aren’t rocking out, you’re in the wrong room.
As the Karaoke guru Billy Joel would say, it’s all about your appetite. My favorite is a big room with a bunch of strangers. People are representing different factions and personality types, but everyone is there for the same reason—karaoke can turn a room like that into a wild, temporary community where people are high-fiving each other and embracing each other, when in real life we’d be too inhibited to behave that way.
My most recent sublime karaoke experience was when I was doing that Daft Punk song “Get Lucky.” The room was all doing it together—we were surprised it was in the karaoke book already—it really blew it off the roof.
My favorite karaoke scene is one is from Breaking Bad. The scene where they find Gale’s Karaoke video—where he’s singing “Major Tom (Coming Home)”, and Hank has brought it over to Walter White to show how doofy this dead drug dealer is. It’s so sad and moving and devastating. It’s a beautiful song that I’ve done at karaoke a million times. Gale’s acting out his rock star fantasy but it’s so vulnerable. Something about the karaoke environment makes him seem vulnerable in a way that’s devastating for Walter White and the audience. It shows how entering the karaoke zone is hardcore emotional treatment.
One time I did a song by Frankie Goes to Hollywood—everyone remembers “Relax,” their big hit, and then there’s “Two Tribes,” their little hit—but then there’s the sensitive ballad, “The Power of Love.” I thought, no one in the history of the planet has ever liked this Frankie Goes to Hollywood song except me! I felt obligated to sing it, like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, it needed a little love. My friends were not into it. They were like, “What the hell is this song?” I had to promise them afterwards I’d never do this again. Even if you pick a song and it’s not happening, you have to soldier through to the end, you have to ride it through to the end.
Karaoke was scary to do it at first, because I have a genuinely horrific voice that makes cats run away in terror. For me to conquer that primal fear and get up and sing in front of people, opened doors for me emotionally. At a dark point in my life, being at a strange town where I’d just moved, and feeling pretty lonesome—it brought me out of a shell. There was this sensation, if you walk into a room, it didn’t matter who was in there, maybe I’d never speak to them again, but I would give them a Hall and Oates song and we’d celebrate together. That’s the mystery I keep trying to figure out in my writing: how people use music to connect to each other.