Karaoke Babylon

A couple of years ago, I was asked to write an article about karaoke for a travel site, but it never got used, (probably because of the increasingly hyperbolic and negative tone towards the end!) so I thought I’d post it here:

Karaoke Babylon

Just as soft drugs supposedly lead to harder drugs, in Japan booze inevitably leads to… karaoke.

Now, I should point out that Karaoke in Japan is a very different proposition to Karaoke at home. In Japan, you generally go to a “Karaoke box,” a building full of tiny private rooms where you and your friends are led to your own snug little booth, with comfy chairs, a remote-controlled karaoke machine, and a phone for ordering drinks and snacks. Here you can happily warble without the drawback of being humiliated by a jeering, drunken mob of disapproving strangers. The rooms come equipped with phone-book-sized lists of songs to choose from, both English and Japanese. Every kind of song imaginable is available, both pop-tastic hits and indie obscurities, from 50s standards to current chart-stormers released as recently as last week.
At home you would not be trusted to drink in such a room unsupervised, without stealing the karaoke machine, or at least throwing up all over it. Meanwhile, the Japanese are trusting to the point of recklessness, cramming their karaoke boxes full of state-of-the-art gizmos, such as giant flat-screen TVs which broadcast the number of calories you burned off during your performance, and novelty items like tambourines, or sometimes even costumes. (I advise you to approach these costumes with caution. Thanks to the advent of camera-phones, pictures of me clad in both a monkey costume and an ill-fitting schoolgirl uniform are now floating around on various social networking sites.)

All this makes for marvelous, childish fun, so it’s no surprise that karaoke clubs light up towns all over Japan. There were approximately 130,000 of them at last count, in 2007. A desperate karaoke junkie could easily find somewhere to sing, even if stranded in the remotest of villages at four in the morning. Near any major station, you should be able to spot a branch of one of the big chains- Big Echo, Shidax, Pasela, Daytripper, 747, or Karaoke-Kan. They are as ubiquitous as McDonald’s. And karaoke boxes are not the only outlet- the “snack” pubs and hostess bars frequented by businessmen uniformly have a machine in the corner. You can get tinny digital karaoke tunes on your mobile phone, with the accompanying lyrics scrolling down the screen. There are at least two karaoke channels on cable TV, running an endless loop of backing tracks and subtitled song words, over romantic images of tropical beaches and cornfields.
Insecure individuals slip into karaoke boxes alone to practise. On quiet weekday afternoons, senior citizens go for a polite croon with their withered old friends. Solitary salary-men book themselves a room just to sleep in, when too much grueling overtime leads them to miss their train home. Tone deaf or terminally shy businessmen, who want to wow their bosses at parties, pay big bucks to personal karaoke trainers, who knock their vocal skills into shape, like musical Mr. Miyagis.

Japan is, after all, the birthplace of karaoke. The name is derived from the words “kara” (which means “empty”) and “okesutara” (which means “orchestra”). “Empty orchestra” may sound like an episode of Scooby Doo set in a haunted concert hall, but to the Japanese it has less spooky connotations.
It was invented in the early 70s by an enterprising drummer-come-mad-scientist from Kobe, called Daisuke Inoue, who cobbled together the first ever karaoke machine out of a mini-amp, a mic, a coin box, and a car stereo equipped with a tape of his band playing backing tracks. You might imagine that he now spends his days singing “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” into a diamond-encrusted microphone but, alas, this is not so. Poor old Inoue neglected to patent the idea, never made a penny, and now peddles cockroach-repellant for a living. Doh! Inoue may well consider himself unfortunate, but I’m sure old men across the globe, who regularly have their quiet evening beers in the pub interrupted by karaoke nights featuring the caterwauling of shit-faced Celine Dion wannabes, would consider his bad luck to be divine justice.

Nevertheless, residents of Japan have a lot to thank Daisuke Inoue for. His creation has one invaluable use- a trip to the karaoke box is the ideal way to finish off a hot date. What better way to ensure a sexy end to the evening than to escort your lady or lad into a dark, secluded room, where booze flows freely, conversation is no longer required, and you are able to express your romantic side through the power of song. I’m sure many a child has been conceived on the soft seats of a karaoke box, sound-tracked by crappy instrumental versions of Barry White songs, while the microphone lays idle. Before getting anywhere, however, guys may have to swallow their pride- Japanese girls often expect to be serenaded with their favourite songs, by the likes of The Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears. I am ashamed to say I, myself, have sold-out and sung sickly love-ballads which not only have I never heard before, but I have, in fact, studiously avoided. It is extremely difficult to hit Britney’s high notes, I can tell you. Such performances are both humiliating and risky (lest we forget, phones have video-cameras on them these days,) but sometimes a man must do what is necessary to get his leg over. At least nobody has asked me to sing Meat Loaf. I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.

Lamentably for me, these romantic encounters are few and far between, and I’m far more likely to end up piling into a karaoke box with a group of drunken mates. A trip to the karaoke box with your buddies can be tremendous fun. Well, it’s fun once or twice. The first time that you heroically hold aloft that mighty microphone, like He-Man, years of inhibition, embarrassment, and repressed emotion come flooding out in the form of music. It’s incredibly cathartic. Old teenaged dreams of pop-stardom momentarily manifest themselves as you belt out the classics with relish.
By the seventh or eighth time you hit the karaoke box, however, the novelty has already worn off, and your own nervous excitement has been replaced by dread at the prospect of spending an entire evening in a tiny box with the same handful of people, all singing with such ineptitude that you yearn for Simon Cowell to appear and berate them. Luckily, most karaoke boxes offer cheap, all-night, all-you-can-drink deals, so you can cope with the cacophony by drinking excessively.

Here’s how a bad all-night session in a karaoke box typically unfolds:
Late at night, after drinking in a bar, some deluded show-off will propose a karaoke jam. You must then decide between catching the last train home, or enduring five hours of liver abuse and aural torture in a karaoke booth. This is a no-brainer if you’re sober, but common sense tends to fly out the window when you’ve been drinking copious amounts of sake.
Once inside, the most inarticulate, slurring wino in the group grabs the mic, and the musical misery begins. You now find yourself trapped for the night in a claustrophobic, black room, with men and women fighting over microphones and screaming themselves hoarse. Emotions are laid bare, fluids are spilled. It’s a bit like the films “Cube” or “Saw,” but with a worse soundtrack. In the karaoke box, no-one can hear you scream (unless you’re the one with the mic).

These five-hour sessions, customary for those who have missed their trains home, can become brutal affairs, thanks to sleep-deprivation combined with cheap unlimited alcohol. As the night unfolds and everybody becomes drunker and more emotional, aggressive lunges are made for the remote control. Everybody squabbles over whose song is next. Blood, as well as beer, is sometimes spilled. One guy I know was head-banging so vigorously to his own rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine” that he smashed his face into the table -Thwack!!- and cracked his head open. He was unconscious on the floor in a mess of blood for an alarming moment before clambering to his feet, whimpering.

On the karaoke monitor, the repetitive washed-out video images of young couples promenading in San Francisco, London, and Paris look like out-takes from an early 90s commercial for women’s deodorant. They begin to have a hypnotic effect after a couple of hours and make you lose the will to live.

Respite can be found in periodic trips to the toilets. En route, you can enjoy the muffled melodies from other rooms full of inebriated locals. Be sure to take note of your room number when nature calls, because all the rooms are identical. You might never find your way back, and be lost for all eternity in the labyrinthine corridors. Although, roaming the hallways can be an adventure in itself, and is often preferable to returning to your red-faced friends. More than once I have ended up stumbling into the wrong room, and been invited by jubilant drunkards to sing a Beatles song or two. (Be careful, though. Open the wrong door once too often and you might burst in on a rutting couple. Randy teenagers use karaoke rooms as a cheap alternative to hotels. The karaoke box is the Japanese version of the car back-seat.) Indeed, an amorous couple among your own party might also slink off to the bathroom for some intimacy that they will regret in the morning (perhaps sneaking the monkey and schoolgirl costumes out with them, to spice things up.)

As dawn draws near, your friends begin passing out on the seats. The tambourine lies broken. An inch of beer is sloshing around on the floor.
Slowly darkness descends, your vision blurs….
… and you wake up on a bench under the blazing sun, your ears ringing, the scuff-marks on the toes of your shoes indicating that you had been dragged there by the thankless karaoke-box staff. You rue having been foolish enough to go to the karaoke box yet again. I wonder if Daisuke Inoue ever knew it would come to this!

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7 Responses to Karaoke Babylon

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