Don’t Stop Believin’ by Brian Raftery
If you’ve been reading this blog long, you’ll know that I adore bad music. The cheesier the more bombastic, and the more overproduced, the better, in my opinion. Accordingly, my karaoke song is “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” (I do both voices and, if the mood strikes, the synthesizer.) And yet, while wailing eighties power ballads to a crowd of strangers is a telling allegory for my life, I shy away from singing with people. It’s not stage fright—the public or an audience don’t register as “people” to me, so I can do that fine. It’s just that music, for me, can be intensely personal: I have songs that I adore that I will only listen to once in a very long while and songs I can’t listen to any more because they remind me of certain times in my life that I don’t want to revisit.
It’s also a legacy of my childhood. During the Wombat Years, I thought it was the height of rudeness to sing in front of another person without invitation. Because I thought everybody else assigned songs such weighty emotional significance, it felt like walking in on someone in the shower if my mother sang in the car. Music, I would huff internally to myself as I turned my face away in passive aggression, should be left up to the professionals.
Brian Raftery relates a similar incident from his childhood in Don’t Stop Believin’, where he cringes over his mother singing showtunes while going about her domestic business because she didn’t sound “right.” According to Raftery, the advent of recorded music and then personal music players changed music from a communal activity—you needed something to do while farming and you needed to preserve the songs, so you might as well—to a private activity. Growing up, I listened to music alone, first on a Walkman and then on an iPod. The occasional show tune at a friend’s party aside, music was not something to be shared.
This, Raftery argues, is what made karaoke such a hard sell in the United States: the reticence to share music by performing songs in front of others. Even Raftery, a devotee of the highest order, recalls feeling so nervous he almost went home before the first karaoke performance that hooked him. But, with the rise of American Idol, the line between professional and amateur became blurred. Now our pop stars are plucked from obscurity by their benevolent overlords from YouTube. While karaoke is slung as an insult on the show, it nonetheless inspired plenty of young people to go out and invade the karaoke hotspots previously patronized by people like Raftery.
Don’t Stop Believin’ alternates between a history of karaoke and a history of Raftery’s experience with karaoke. The first is a fascinating uphill battle, as karaoke purveyors in Japan and then America attempt to convince a reluctant public to actually use the technology. He calmly explains the difference between a karaoke bar, where you perform in public, and a private room, where you perform for your friends. It’s interesting, fun stuff. But I prefer the second part, which, if karaoke could be considered a fandom instead of a medium, could be considered a fannish memoir. He talks about his love of singing “despite” his voice, how karaoke provided a place where he was accepted and celebrated, and how performing certain songs got him through rough patches in his life.
The best way to communicate both Raftery’s love of karaoke and the wonders of the form comes when Raftery talks about performing Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” all alone while traveling after a major heartbreak:
…as I sat in that room by myself, the words became mine: It was as though Stevie and I were collaborating, and only the two of us understood what it was like to experience this very keen sort of heartbreak. Music lovers, even passive ones, often talk about being able to relate to a certain song, but at karaoke, you can actually inhabit that song and make it your own. (51)
It’s stuff like this that made me love Don’t Stop Believin’, because it’s so true. Fannishness is often defined as not being about what you love, but how you love it, and even if Raftery’s love is karaoke and not, say, The Lord of the Rings, it’s still something that resonates deeply for me. It captures the exact moment when a song (or a novel or a movie or a story) becomes yours, no matter who wrote it.
Raftery’s writing style is light, fun, and capable of moments of great introspection. Stealing a song from a friend at a karaoke bar reminds him that some things should always be a duet; everyone who comes to New York wants to stake a claim in a space there, no matter how small (or not actually theirs). Despite his hatred of Creed, he understands where a karaoke competitor is coming from when he performs a Creed song with his whole heart. Plus, Raftery describes the beginning of life as occurring “when the first protozoan life-form crawled atop a rock and sang “Love Shack” to a horny newt” (5). I’ve heard no origin story so perfect.
Bottom line: Don’t Stop Believin’ is half a history of karaoke and half a memoir about Raftery’s own experiences with karaoke, capturing the moment when a song (or a novel or a movie) becomes yours deftly. A great deal of fun and well worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.