How karaoke took over the world


If you know your jūhachiban from your hitokara, then you'll know that we're talking about one of the most popular social pursuits of the past 40 years; karaoke. When it's good, it's great, and when it's bad, well, that's great too. But where did it come from, and how did something that sounds so bad on paper manage to take over the world?

It's largely thought that Daisuke Inoue was the originator, an inventor from Nishinomiya in Japan, between the cities of Kobe and Osaka. The son of a pancake vendor, Inoue was a drummer, but not, sadly, a particularly successful one. Instead of pursuing his dreams, he turned instead to management, and began looking after the interests of a group who played as a backing band in a bar for businessmen who wanted to get on stage and sing.

When Inoue and his band were unable to accompany a wealthy client on a business trip, he instead provided the businessman with a tape featuring the backing music. Spotting the potential goldmine, he developed 11 tape machines complete with amplifiers and microphones and rented them to local bars, allowing their customers to sing along with popular songs. Karaoke - deriving from the Japanese for 'empty', or 'kara', and 'okesutora', or 'orchestra' - was born.

At around the same time, it was also developing in parallel in the Philippines, thanks to another inventor, Roberto del Rosario, who in 1974 made the first Sing Along System, which performed a similar task as Inoue's karaoke machines, but adding reverb to the vocals, making for a slightly more professional sound for its non-professional singers, and sometimes coming with songbooks. Others saw the potential for these units too, however, with unscrupulous manufacturers copying his idea and making their own versions.

The trend spread quickly across Asia to China, Thailand and India. The Philippines take the art particularly seriously. In a phenomenon that became known as the 'My Way Killings', some singers paid the ultimate price for butchering Sinatra's lounge standard, with a rash of murders occurring during the 2000s thought to be due to “karaoke rage”. Many now avoid the song as a matter of personal safety, while some bars even have banned it outright.

It wasn't until the 80s that it arrived in Europe and the U.S., by which time the technology of karaoke units had advanced, with the original cassettes soon giving way to CD units, complete with video screens showing the song lyrics and music videos. In the 90s, karaoke machines began appearing in taxis in South Korea, giving rise to a trend for 'caroke', while the Chinese manufacturer Geely began fitting their Beauty Leopard model with a karaoke unit as standard. Video games have since extended the life of karaoke in the console world, with ‘Karaoke Studio’ released in 1985 for the Nintendo right up to ‘SingStar’ emerging for the PlayStation 3 in 2004.

Appearances elsewhere in popular culture increased the exposure of karaoke too. In the 80s, interest was piqued when Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan sang 'The Surrey With The Fringe On Top' from the musical 'Oklahoma!' in 'When Harry Met Sally'. There's also the memorable moment in Sofia Coppola's 'Lost In Translation', when Bill Murray turns in a heartfelt version of Roxy Music's 'More Than This' in response to Scarlett Johansson's rendition of The Pretenders' 'Brass In Pocket'.

The Karaoke World Championships emerged in 2003, signalling its global appeal. Seven countries took part in the inaugural event in 2003, which has continued to expand with some 30 competitors taking part in the most recent competition.

Occasionally lists will be published detailing the most popular karaoke selections, with the 2009 PRS for Music chart finding Abba's ‘Waterloo’ at number one in the UK, closely followed by Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody', Sinatra's 'My Way', 'I Will Survive' by Gloria Gaynor and Abba once more with 'Dancing Queen' making up the top five.

Some would also argue that the spate of singing talent shows, from 'American Idol' and 'The Voice' to 'The X Factor' owe much to the ethos of karaoke.

Still a draw in pubs and bars across the UK, and with many dedicated karaoke venues too, enthusiasm for belting out classics in a room full of strangers seems unlikely to abate. Last year, a group of Hungarians achieved the world karaoke marathon record, a game group singing for 1,011 hours and one minute. Impressive...