You start to sing karaoke, and some kind of psychic heart-switch flips. If you’re lucky, and the beer doesn’t run out, it’s more than just a night of debauchery. It’s a spiritual quest. This spiritual quest, like so many spiritual quests, involves Bonnie Tyler.
After the sudden death of his wife, music critic and Rolling Stone journalist Rob Sheffield found unexpected comfort in karaoke. After moving from Charlottesville to New York, Sheffield found himself, night after night, in front of drunken strangers in dingy karaoke bars, mic in hand. But rather than jolting his audience out of their stupor and into glazy-eyed wonderment with his pitch-perfect singing prowess and mastery of Journey lyrics, Sheffield confesses that he can barely carry a tune. In a great interview with NPR, Sheffield says of his karaoke therapy, “Karaoke sort of forced me to go out and leave my apartment and make noise, which doesn’t come naturally to me especially when, like me, you have a completely terrible voice. So it really—it became part of coming back to life for me.”
Sheffield has chronicled how karaoke helped him out of this dark point in his life in his new book called Turn Around Bright Eyes (you can read an excerpt here). In the NPR interview, Sheffield says, “Karaoke starts when you conquer that primal fear of singing and just putting yourself up there and opening up.” For Sheffield, “coming back to life” after a tragedy wasn’t about mastering a new skill or overcoming a flaw—it was about embracing his vocal ineptitude and grabbing that dented karaoke mic with confidence, knowing that the wasted deadbeats and bridesmaids in the bar would gladly accept any off-key offering. NPR called it redemption.
Sheffield points to Neil Diamond as his “vocal doppelganger” and describes the imagined karaoke coaching that Diamond gives him.
Neil wants to make you a louder person. If you’re a boy, Neil wants you to sing like a man. He gives it to you straight. ‘Look into the mirror kid, or merely behold your image in the reflective sheen of my gaze. You can’t worry about whether you are good enough to sing this song, you can’t hem and haw about whether you are worthy to hold this mike. You must belt. Act like you planned every second of this. Look at the woman when you sing to her and mean it.’
Sheffield found a place where he could express himself through discord, and that was more than enough. He didn’t have to be a star, he just had to show up.
For Sheffield, making noise also has a cathartic quality. Each song chosen from the dog-eared, laminated volume of karaoke songs is weighted with emotional memories as well as spilled cocktail stains.
It’s weird how, for me, music and memory are so entwined. Because, just, when you go in for a night of karaoke you find yourself really sort of flipping through the pages of your past and reliving these past moments and someone will sing a song that reminds you of a time that you’ve forgotten or you’ll start to sing a song and you’ll remember the experiences that you had while listening to it and it really shakes up your emotions in ways that you can’t necessarily plan on.
The dual process of reliving past memories and making new ones (Sheffield got to know his second and current wife singing karaoke) is an integral part of karaoke’s therapeutic thrill. The overplayed lines of Bon Jovi and Bonnie Tyler, which can often sound like nothing more than platitudes backed by a drum machine, still mean enough to make people lose their inhibitions and belt them out. You don’t have to sing well to make songs about heartbreak relatable. Sheffield says it like this: “Once upon a time I was falling apart. Now I’m always falling in love.”