Karaoke rules! Thanks a bunch, Japan

Many people pooh-pooh karaoke. Ironically, a lot of those people excel at Rock Band.

Like Pearl Harbor and raw fish being passed off as fine dining, we can blame the Japanese for the fad that never went away. “Karaoke” comes from the Japanese words for “kara” – meaning “empty” – and “okesurtora” – meaning “orchestra.” This seems to make sense until you realize anybody can make up anything and post it on Wikipedia.

The Japanese were singing vocals to instrumental tracks at their local bars long before we round-eyes were drunkenly dueting “Summer Nights” with some floozy we just met. Often, your place in the corporate world of Tokyo was determined by the way you sang karaoke. It has been the cause of many suicides, and a few murders. Check out News of the Weird and other similar websites for news of assorted karaoke mayhem.

So why – after some 25 years – are we still doing it? For me, the answer is simple: Women love men who can sing. How else could you explain the appeal of a Rod Stewart or a Morrissey? Women also love to get drunk. And karaoke is a proven way to pick up women. It’s another irony that I’ve heard many a man grumble that the whole concept of karaoke is gay. A lot of these men are lonely.

If you’ve made the decision to try karaoke, the next question is “Which bar do you choose?” It depends. What’s important to you? A vast selection of songs? A great sound system? Cheap booze? All of the above? Ideal karaoke bars are popular and thus have a large rotation of singers. If the rotation is 15 people, you can look forward to an hour wait between your song selections. If the majority pick epics like “Hey Jude”, “Stairway To Heaven”, “Free Bird” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” to warble out of tune, it will only seem like an eternity. If you want to go to a place that almost guarantees a low rotation, try a hole-in-the-wall pub where the pages of the karaoke books are stuck together.

You have to hand it to the Japanese: They have given karaoke an etiquette sadly lacking in the Western world. The first rule is that karaoke is no excuse to torture others (Ironically, the Japanese also gave us waterboarding.) We realize that in all of us is a song bursting to get out. If you suck – and you know it – sing your one song, and end it! Do not join in a person’s song unless you have their expressed or implied permission to do so. Wait your turn. A karaoke rotation is based on a first come-first served basis. If you’re going to bugger off for a smoke or a pee, tell the host. Nothing grinds the proceedings to a screeching halt faster than a host bellowing out the name of some clown who is not available. If the song is not in the book, it’s not available at the bar. Don’t pester the host to ask if a song is the book. You can read; look it up yourself.

If you’re sick, don’t come to breathe your filth into the communal microphone: It’s called “karaoke” and not “Typhoid Mary-oke! In my experiences as a karaoke host, I once had a drunk woman vomit right next to me and then asked if she could sing some Maroon 5. I could have spewed.

Be polite and don’t heckle. If you know so much, then why don’t you get up and show us all how it’s done? If you bail on a song, don’t be surprised if your host doesn’t take your future requests seriously. If the bar cuts you off from alcohol, don’t be surprised it they also cut you off from the mic. If you’re too drunk to drink, you’re too drunk to sing. There is such a thing and I’ve seen it many, many times.


Adrian Lackey, Edmonton-based playwright and theatre critic, is the host of a karaoke night every Wednesday and Saturday at Gallagher’s Pub, 11434 Groat Road.