IN THE UNITED STATES, the magic happens in a bar, or — and this is the pro move — in private rooms rented by the hour: “The electric frazzle in the voices, the crackle of the microphones, the smell of sweat, mildew, vodka, and pheromones — [that’s] the full karaoke experience,” writes Rob Sheffield, in his devastatingly smart and heartfelt new book, Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke. What’s more: “There’s a buzzer on the wall you can press for more drinks.”
The book isn’t all fun and games. At the core of Turn Around — a book almost equal to Sheffield’s debut, Love Is a Mixtape, and picking up where that book left off — there are two traumas. In the 1990s, the rock writer lived in Virginia, where he and his first wife Renée Crist amassed a bulging CV of features and reviews. The pair seemed destined to be among the greatest culture-writing tandem of the newest wave. Then she was dead — felled at 29 by a pulmonary embolism. Alone and reeling, Sheffield moves to New York, taking an apartment in lower Manhattan. In a glass cage, he pines, binges on episodes of Designing Women, and runs the dishwasher for white noise. He feels, he says, like he might never participate in a normal life again.
Then the planes hit, and everyone’s life became abnormal. “I wasn’t just reeling from the grief of a personal apocalypse; I was witnessing mass grief with no idea of how to fit into it.” It takes months to find a way forward, and in a unique side note, Sheffield notes how long it took for rock shows to resume. In that creepy afterglow, he joins friends one night for a fancy dinner. What they eat is lost to history, but Sheffield says he’ll never forget what came next: They went to a bar to sing.
For the uninitiated, Sheffield goes relatively deep into the history of karaoke, which started in Japan, spreading throughout Asia, where it became a cornerstone of many a good evening. When I lived in Cambodia a dozen years ago, for instance, I couldn’t understand why my otherwise reasonable friends insisted we go singing. On the spot, that first night, I picked George Michael’s “Faith.” It was a terrible rendition, I’m sure, yet everyone squealed in encouragement — especially the woman to my left, who I would eventually marry. Years later, she and I lived in the slums of Jakarta, at a house run by a Muslim scholar’s second wife. Things couldn’t have been much more grim. Most mornings, we’d wake up to the skittering feet of rats or the booming whoosh of a train. Mice danced in the communal rice jar and the bathroom flooded and a terrorist group had recently blown up a nightclub. But whenever our landlady fired up the karaoke machine, often to sing Air Supply, it was impossible not to loosen up a little.
What is it about making a fool of yourself, doing something you’re not very good at, then passing the mic so the next person can clear their throat? After a first night of karaoke, Sheffield becomes hooked on the good vibes, seeking out again and again the thrill of performing in public, the ritual of being among people lost and in love with the power of a song.
What’s your karaoke song? This becomes a go-to question in interviews Sheffield does for Rolling Stone, where he is a contributing editor. (Even the most famous people, it turns out, also like to sing Bon Jovi.) Indeed, we all love to sing, Sheffield concludes, because it’s both a powerful emotional release and a thing you do with others, some of whom you’d never connect with otherwise: “Sometimes you can feel like you’re experiencing some of the most honest, most intimate moments of your life, while butchering a Hall & Oates song at 2 a.m. in a room full of strangers.”
But as much as many of us love karaoke, Sheffield has to admit there’s no guarantee of any actual improving — at perfecting one’s voice, or at being alone. But who cares? Revel in the bad, order another vodka, pick another song. “There is simply no other American ritual that rewards people for doing things they suck at doing.” You’d never rent a kitchen with your friends and pretend to be Mario Batali. There’s no boozy visit to a batting cage to swing like A-Rod. Yet when we open our mouths, for some reason, others stop to listen, and, hell, it’s a good time. (And if you’re lucky, maybe the right girl is watching, too.)
In sum, Turn Around is about music and identity and love — about how through hard times we manage nonetheless, miraculously, to find each other and to make something beautiful. Telling his own powerful love story, Sheffield writes about Pavement as much as he does family and friends and dates, and when he finally meets her — “the new girl” — the pages can’t turn fast enough.
There are a few places that cry out for more reflection and courage, such as his description of a funereal singing session after 9/11. That night, a close friend chooses “99 Luftballoons,” that deceptively pointed 1980s anti-war hit. The woman begins to sing and the crowd is stunned; is it too soon to joke about jet fighters and the world lying in ruins? But this is no joke. “The way everybody sang,” Sheffield writes, “it felt like maybe there were some answers in there somewhere.”
Answers are good, if you can articulate them. But sometimes we’re just as moved by feelings. For its intelligence and insight — plus its humor and cultural fluency — Turn Around is not only one of the season’s best reads, it might be one for the ages. Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus may be among our best rock critics. But if Sheffield keeps writing books as tender and smart as this one, he might end up being judged on a bigger dais.