Author Rob Sheffield: "I'm a Karaoke Ho"
Rob Sheffield, esteemed rock journalist and author of the books "Love Is a Mix Tape" and "Talking to Girls About Duran Duran," has a new memoir, "Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke" in stores now. Bookish talked with him about his love of public singing, which songs go best in a karaoke bar and how the profundity of the shared joy of belting out songs can lead to insights about the cosmos.
Bonus track: Check out Rob Sheffield's karaoke playlist for famous authors--Joyce, Wilde, Dickinson and more!
Bookish: What made you write a book about karaoke?
Rob Sheffield: I've been trying to write about karaoke for a long time--it's a huge topic for me. There's no other music fan experience like the karaoke experience. From a wallflower to a karaoke ho: It's been a big transition.
Bookish: But I think I heard you say that you're not a great singer?
RS: You're the only person who'll ever describe me as "not a great singer." It's more like I'm lamentable, horrible and atrocious. I can't even tell where the notes are; if I get any right, it's by accident. Around 10 years ago, the first time I did karaoke, it kinda blew my mind. You could get up in a dingy bar in Koreatown, under fluorescent lights, on a linoleum floor, doing a terrible version of a Neil Diamond song, and you're actually singing in front of other people? And people are not throwing drinks? People are not running away? Instead, people are getting up and singing equally badly afterwards? We all go to karaoke to applaud each other--it's the most democratic thing you can do.
Bookish: What's your go-to song?
RS: Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," which is one of the reasons I called the book "Turn Around Bright Eyes." Choosing that song says, "we're here to sing karaoke; we're here to belt." (It's hard to remember what the song sounded like before karaoke, actually.) The songs that work best are the really extroverted ones. Imagine singing "Dangling Conversation," by Simon and Garfunkel, in a karaoke bar--you're going to be the only one singing. You need to choose songs that sound like they were designed to be sung by drunk strangers at four in the morning. Being willing to participate is all that matters.
Bookish: I want to start a movement in karaoke where you're allowed to sing long, introspective songs, like "Good Intentions Paving Company," by Joanna Newsom.
RS: I'm not sure you could ever make that song work. There's a karaoke place we used to go to where there were just two rules: No "American Pie," and no "Stairway to Heaven"--they were considered too long and too sad. I love both of those songs, and if they come on the radio I'll sing along, but in a karaoke bar different aspects of music come out. What you want to listen to in your room after a breakup, with the candle going and a bottle of wine--say, some Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen--[wouldn't work] in a karaoke bar because you are required to belt.
Karaoke touches on so many different aspects of life…. If you live your life as a music fan like I have, your relationship to music changes. And if you're a moody bastard like me, well, at 14 I loved The Clash and Donna Summer; at 20, I liked REM and Taylor Dayne.
Bookish: I agree. For example, I love Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon--but also Taylor Swift. Just listen to how perfect "Trouble" is--three-and-a-half minutes of perfect pop music.
RS: I saw her a few weeks ago in Newark and she put on a real arena rock show--she was fantastic. The pandemonium of the audience is part of the thing, too--you're surrounded by kids and it's the first time they're seeing a girl with a guitar--and they're rocking out. All my toddler nieces want to play guitar, and the idea that a girl wrote a song about something she was feeling is a mind-blowing concept to them.
Bookish: So much for Taylor Swift. What is the book you always recommend to people, the book you'd hand to anyone?
RS: "Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction," by Wallace Stevens. I read it when I was 19 and it was hugely life-changing for me. In the shower the other day I found myself reciting, "They married well because the marriage-place / Was what they loved," because I was thinking, "I LIKE this bathroom."
Bookish: Where is this happy place?
RS: I've lived in New York City for 13 years, and I write here, but I can write almost anywhere. I'm always writing grand stuff down. Listening to karaoke you often get these cosmic insights. Last night it was, "Wow, Kenny Rogers was right--you have to know when to hold 'em AND when to fold 'em. That's a very wise song, Kenny." This morning I looked at what I'd written and thought, "This was deeper last night." It's like the time Paul McCartney smoked pot for the first time, with Bob Dylan. He said to himself, "My god, I'm having all these insights," so and he called his roadie, Mal Evans, and said, "Write this down." Next day McCartney read the notes and all it said was, "There are seven levels." That was it.
Rob Sheffield has been a music journalist for more than 20 years. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone--where he writes about music, TV and pop culture--and regularly appears on MTV and VH1. He is the author of "Love is a MixTape," "Talking to Girls About Duran Duran" and a new memoir, "Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke."