It is a steep, cruel drop from the highest karaoke high to its lowest low. One moment you’re bounding onto a makeshift stage, basking in the glow of a crowd’s applause. The next, you’re wondering why on earth you thought you knew the lyrics to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” You’re losing your audience with every passing beat. The room starts to spin. Sweat forms on your brow. Mistakes have been made, and now you’re living with them.
I’ve experienced this terrible self-own a handful of times at home and abroad. They’re some of my most cringe-inducing experiences — being stuck halfway through a Beach Boys number realizing I did not read the room. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Singing karaoke can be incredibly rewarding and joyful, particularly if you’re a traveler on the road.
The pastime — revered or reviled depending on who you’re asking — can be found around the world, from the crevices of the Himalayas to the research stations of Antarctica. And historically, we can thank Japan for that.
There are a number of origin stories for the invention of modern-day karaoke, but Daisuke Inoue of Japan tends to get the credit after building the Juke-8, one of the first karaoke devices. Time Magazine went on to name Inoue the creator of karaoke and one of the most influential Asians of the 20th century. Karaoke became such a phenomenon that Inoue was even awarded an Ig Nobel Peace Prize — intended to “celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative, and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”
Karaoke serves as stand-in for a lot of things. It’s a fun way to help people blow off steam and navigate social norms comfortably.
“In a society where people keep a polite distance from each other, deep conversations are also avoided,” says journalist Jake Adelstein, who has lived in Japan for more than 30 years. “Karaoke helps fill the empty space and the silence, and it gives you both something to talk about.”
Kaori Shoji, a freelance journalist and writer from Tokyo, puts it more bluntly. “The Japanese are inherently shy and bad at spontaneous communication,” she says. “Karaoke gives people a chance to get to know each other without the ritualistic formalities brought on by sit-down dinners and parties.”
What works for the Japanese population also translates well for travelers in that country. Karaoke facilitates intercultural communication, providing a port in the culture-shock storm. You might not know how to speak Japanese or how to bow correctly when you leave a room, but at least you know how to belt Whitney Houston tunes into a microphone.
There are a few notes to take into consideration before you start singing. For starters, know that in Japan, most karaoke takes place in private rooms or karaoke boxes, also known as KTVs. Don’t expect to sing to an auditorium of strangers but, rather, an intimate group.
Once you’ve found your way inside of a karaoke box, it’s time to pick a song. Most locals tend to stick to Japanese songs, which isn’t to say that a non-speaker needs to try to sing in Japanese. In my experience, the reception is better to a top-40 hit than something niche. The key word here is song, singular. Start with just one.
“In Japan, people make sure they put in one song and then see that others have added a song each,” says Mari Yamamoto, an actor and writer from Tokyo now living in New York. There’s an unspoken understanding that there will be an order to the evening, and everyone will get equal time on the mic.
But when it’s your turn to sing, go wild. This is a time to let your guard down and get loose. “I think it’s so funny that Japanese people are usually so quiet and suppress their emotions, and you go to a karaoke box and you see people really letting go, like they’re living some kind of fantasy,” Yamomoto says.
It didn’t take long for karaoke to pick up around the world. Machines similar to Inoue’s were being created elsewhere, including Roberto Del Rosario’s karaoke machine that was patented in the Philippines in 1975. The machines also made their way outside of Asia, hitting hard in places like Australia, the United States and Europe. By the 1990s, karaoke had exploded into popularity in Finland, as well, working its magic on the Finns.
“As a nation, we’re repressed people, but it’s socially acceptable to perform at a place like a karaoke bar for some reason. It’s a place that cancels all of the other social rules,” says Heikki Paasonen, host of the TV shows “The Voice of Finland,” a local riff of the American singing-competition show, and “The Wall,” a game show.
According to a 2017 survey by the official Finnish Authority for Statistics, 10 percent of the Finnish population sang karaoke in the previous year. Finns are so crazy about karaoke that they started the Karaoke World Championships, now the largest competition of its kind, with more than 30 countries represented.
“Everybody gets to sing — it doesn’t matter how bad you are. Everybody gets applauded, as well — there’s no rejection culture in that sense.”
Heikki Paasonen, TV host of "The Voice of Finland," on karaoke at public venues in the country
“Finland is a very unique place. It’s only got 5 and a half million people living there — however, outside of Asia, it’s the number one country in the world for karaoke,” says Michael Yelvington, director of international sales for Singa, a karaoke software company that started in Helsinki. “There are more karaoke venues, restaurants and bars per capita in Finland than almost any place in the world. They’re insanely crazy about it.”
There are Finns who treat it like a standard hobby and go to karaoke bars after work to sing a few songs. There’s also the party crowd, with people belting into the wee hours of the night (when the funniest singing takes place, Paasonen notes). Then there are Finland’s heavyweight karaoke singers.
“There are some places in Finland that you won’t even dare to go on the stage unless you are a really good singer, because everyone who goes there are, like, the best of the best,” Yelvington says. “It’s the entertainment of the night — you have really amazing singers in some places.”
It can be an overwhelming experience. Unlike Japanese karaoke boxes, Finnish karaoke venues are very much public spectacles, and singing often takes place in the middle of a packed bar. But don’t let the venue, or anyone’s talent, deter you from taking a pass at the microphone.
“Everybody gets to sing — it doesn’t matter how bad you are,” Paasonen says. “Everybody gets applauded, as well — there’s no rejection culture in that sense.”
In the United States
The United States has long had a history of inclusive karaoke singing, as well. Before Inoue built his machine, Americans were familiar with the concept of singing along to projected lyrics, thanks to NBC’s weekly show “Sing Along With Mitch” that debuted in 1961. Hosted by Mitch Miller, the show encouraged the folks at home to sing along to the lyrics that appeared at the bottom of their television screens. Americans took to karaoke technology that started popping up stateside in homes and nightlife venues a few decades later.
In Dallas, Good Luck Karaoke showrunner Josh Robertson — who goes by Josh Hammertimez on Facebook — prefers when amateurs take his stage. Robertson loves that karaoke gives people the chance to live out their fantasies. He stocks the stage with fake instruments so patrons can pretend to play guitar or saxophone. His pet peeve is customers who brag about being professional singers.
“One of the worst things you can hear from someone is, 'Oh, she’s on ‘The Voice,’ ” Robertson says. “They’re serious about it. For me, if I’m going to keep this going four or five hours a night, it can’t be serious all the time.”
As Good Luck’s proprietor and host, Robertson can often feel like a therapist. Singers frequently pour out their hearts when they explain their song choice to him. And through his years as faux-therapist-slash-host-slash-owner, Robertson has seen what performances do well and what flounder. It doesn’t matter whether someone is a gifted singer, only that they’re passionate about the performance. “It’s just about the spirit, not the execution,” he says.
Confidence can come from feeling comfortable with your material. Robertson warns that when you’re choosing a song, make sure you can remember all of the lyrics without reading them. This is even more important if you’re going to tackle a rap song.
“It helps to have crazy familiarity if you’re doing something that doesn’t allow a lot of breathing in between,” he says. Half of the people who attempt rapping get trampled by the genre’s speed. Robertson suggests starting with something easier, like The Beatles, before attempting Sir Mix-a-Lot.
Keep song length in mind when making your pick. Having stage fright and standing in front of a room full of people during the endless instrumental interludes of Toto’s “Africa” can feel like hell, so find something short and sweet (i.e., the 3:18 Billy Joel classic “Uptown Girl”). Robertson also acknowledges that there is strength in numbers. Grab a friend or colleague or whoever you’re with to join you in a duet to take some of the pressure off.
At the end of the day, the best karaoke advice may be to not overthink it. Karaoke is about camaraderie and having fun — not winning or losing. Bury your fear of embarrassment down deep and sing even if you think you’re terrible.
“Everyone can sing. I mean, whether you sing good or bad, everyone loves to sing,” Yelvington says. And if all else fails, it helps that karaoke venues usually serve alcohol.