Perfect Sound Forever


Pub Elvis in Tokyo- notice the King in Cowboy hat on the Confederate flag
Courtesy of Gary Wolff

by Patrick Newman
(January 2001)

Karaoke is popular in Japan. This is a misleading statement. It's clearly not an exaggeration, nor is it really an understatement. Karaoke, as a form of entertainment, is as typical as television is in America. It's as much a part of life as music itself.

At first, signs of karaoke infatuation are obvious. Karaoke signage is everywhere, from the urban sprawl of Tokyo to strip malls out in the sticks. These signs range from massive, neon billboards in the sky to small, demure posters at eye level. On most nights, television viewers hoping to catch some karaoke-oriented programming won't be disappointed. There are a wide variety of shows to choose from, ranging from very amateur to very professional. Some of these shows are just a peek inside the private karaoke rooms of Japan, with judges on hand to rate the performances. On the other end of the scale are the American Bandstand-esque shows. These shows feature rehearsed choreographed performances; with costumes and, often, props (musical instruments, which aren't actually played). The performances are great: the contestants look good and dance well. But they usually aren't good singers.

The second tier of signs is more subtle. Home karaoke systems are available at electronic stores, but karaoke functions are available on even the most basic clock radios. Singles are a popular format in Japan, specifically Maxi-CD singles. These are the current equivalent to the 45's: 3-inch CD singles, including a B-side or two. One of the B-sides, without exception, is an instrumental version of the A-side. Printed lyrics are included in the packaging of the disc. This, presumably, is for karaoke practice.

Why karaoke is so popular, I can't say. But I can say that it is quite an experience, at least for the first time.

Find a building, and go up to the karaoke floor (most buildings in commercial areas have 6 or 7 floors of shopping, dining, and karaoke). Get yourself a room. This can be expensive, but divide the costs eight ways and will become quite reasonable. That's how most people do it.

At the end of the room opposite the door is the TV and karaoke stack. Wrap-around sofas line the funkily painted walls. There's a long coffee table in the middle of the room. On that table is a menu, you can call for the wait staff to bring you drinks, and occasionally, cigarettes. Near the menu are the microphones, remote controls, and a phone book-sized list of available songs.

That book is your guide to the evening's entertainment. Unless you can't read Japanese, in which case, only the last fourth of the book is. That's Okay, thought, because most of the available music is totally unknown to western ears. A few names (Yoko Ono, Pizzicato Five) are recognizable, but that's about it. No Shonen Knife, no Cibo Matto. There are Japanese pop karaoke classics, which quickly become distinguishable, as they can be heard from every karaoke room at various times, and are performed on the karaoke shows.

Concerning the English section, expect a lot Beatles songs. As in real chart-life, their karaoke popularity is no doubt due to their catchy melodies, and simple, yet endearing lyrics. You can get away with singing "Yesterday" and "Yellow Submarine" every time. Other favorites include "My Way" and "What a Wonderful World." These songs are pretty much standard on any karaoke system, but there is some variation. Blur's "Girls and Boys" and "Country House" have been spotted, as has the Cardigan's "Love Fool." Pretty big hits, all three. But look hard, and you'll find some surprises. "Love Spreads" by the Stone Roses, "99 Red Balloons" by Nena, and "Bigmouf strikes again" by the Smiths (that's how it was spelled in the book) are all out there.

Of course, you need an audio system if you're going to sing "Bigmouf strikes again," and that's where the karaoke stack comes in. There's the TV, which displays the lyrics (in case you forget) and backgrounds (once it was a nude beach). Beneath that is the audio system. It plays watered-down versions of all the available songs, and (more importantly) dulls even the shrillest voice. It's EQ'ed to make anyone's voice bearable, and set at a volume that's easily drown out by groups singing in unison. The atmosphere is aided by an electric disco ball, and lights; frequently of the strobe and spot variety.

All this should be more than enough to you and your friends busy until 5:00 AM. And it had better be, because that's when the trains resume running, after a universal midnight shutdown. Or you could leave the party early, and catch the final train, but c'mon, the night is young...

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