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‘Where honour and ridiculousness collide’: in praise of karaoke’s inventor, on his death at 100 | Pop and rock

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Received wisdom holds that haughty music critics, grinding our axes on fans’ beloved pop stars, are nothing more than failed musicians. This has always struck me as slander – not of critics, who certainly can be bitter and mean, but of supposedly failed musicians. How, after all, does one fail at music? To suggest success rides on certain technicalities, like talent or a career, gravely underestimates music’s draw, and nowhere is the lie more spectacularly exposed than in karaoke.

Here is an arena of musical greatness in which incompetence is the house style. Delusions of grandeur, haywire pitch, weird stage presence? Join the party. On that valorising little stage, “failed musician” becomes the most entertaining role in the business.

We take this noble pursuit for granted, so it was alarming to learn last week that the inventor of the karaoke machine had died at the age of 100 – having walked, sashayed and warbled among us till the end. Who would bear witness to a world without karaoke machines and know just what was missing? The visionary in question was Shigeichi Negishi, a Japanese consumer-electronics whiz who invented the Sparko Box machine in 1967, apparently to get one over on a colleague who had mocked his singing around the factory. Quibbles surround the origin story – Daisuke Inoue independently invented his own karaoke box in 1971, and the bar-karaoke tradition predates both – but Negishi, who won the race to make a commercially available machine, tends to get the credit.

And, occasionally, the blame. Negishi’s invention has attracted a chorus of naysayers, starting with the live musicians who saw the Sparko Box as the latest robot hustling to snap up their jobs. In the decades since, non-believers have denounced the endeavour on aesthetic grounds, deeming it tedious, silly and kitsch. I understand this bad opinion, because until last year I shared it. Karaoke bars – clandestine lairs seemingly populated by the unembarrassable – are custom-made to intimidate the uninitiated. Squeamishness abounds, from the lunky mumbler to the hen-do posse tragically convinced they have mastered Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow. But I have come to believe even karaoke sinners deserve admiration, if they just commit to the bit. Self-indulgence is mandatory. Leaving your ego at the door would be a foolish error.

Last year, some friends and I succumbed to the tractor beam of a karaoke bar in a crowded east London basement, with a vigilant no-drinks-on-stage policy and catty drag queen hosts to enforce it. Private booths have their loyalists, but in that murkily fabulous venue, witnessing dreams manifest or be brutally dashed, I was forever sold on the magic of the public act. More than a nostalgic ritual, karaoke at its best is a high-stakes spectacle where honour and ridiculousness collide.

Not so quiet … Björk. Photograph: REX/Fotex

One recent evening, I stepped up for the sacred duty of performing Björk’s It’s Oh So Quiet. The drag queen, clocking my heterosexual overshirt, sourly regaled us with the cautionary tale of a man who had attempted the song a week before, exuding insufficient charisma. This was clearly a warning shot, and it gets to the heart of the matter. Karaoke tests not only our steel but also our deep-seated sense of propriety. You have to be willing to be ludicrous – to cast off humility and etiquette and basically look like a bit of a freak – to get a shot at transcendence.

In a room filled with potential hecklers, the threat, or certainty, of a stranger’s judgment adds to the faux-gravitas. The music starts. Tension ripples through the room. You find your pose and cast about for the opening note, discovering that breath control is not a technical skill but a mysterious elite art form. Maybe in the chorus, needing a distraction, you drop to your knees, palms imploring the sky. By then, at least in the mind’s eye, your adoring audience is heartily screaming along. At the end your friends enshrine the performance with whoops and hollers, like loving parents sticking your naff crayon drawing on the fridge.

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Karaoke’s conjuring of phantom star power occupies a unique space in music fandom, nothing like the communion of a concert singalong. To get on stage and hyperventilate through Olivia Rodrigo’s Vampire – fumbling the bridge, perhaps, but doing so with all your heart – may be an act of love, but it could never be mistaken for one of respect. Whether you go in for a bit of fun or a Stars in Their Eyes throwdown, the role you inhabit is fundamentally one of mischief: kill your idols, amuse your friends and banish all hope of sparking romance in the immediate vicinity.

Karaoke king Negishi practised the discipline until his final years, proving that talent comes and goes but dumb passion is a lifelong gift. His invention helped expand music as we use it, so broad a church that it can absorb failure and folly into its everyday function. Now he is clasping the great microphone in the sky, I hope he ascends to his rightful status as patron saint of iffy singers everywhere.


Received wisdom holds that haughty music critics, grinding our axes on fans’ beloved pop stars, are nothing more than failed musicians. This has always struck me as slander – not of critics, who certainly can be bitter and mean, but of supposedly failed musicians. How, after all, does one fail at music? To suggest success rides on certain technicalities, like talent or a career, gravely underestimates music’s draw, and nowhere is the lie more spectacularly exposed than in karaoke.

Here is an arena of musical greatness in which incompetence is the house style. Delusions of grandeur, haywire pitch, weird stage presence? Join the party. On that valorising little stage, “failed musician” becomes the most entertaining role in the business.

We take this noble pursuit for granted, so it was alarming to learn last week that the inventor of the karaoke machine had died at the age of 100 – having walked, sashayed and warbled among us till the end. Who would bear witness to a world without karaoke machines and know just what was missing? The visionary in question was Shigeichi Negishi, a Japanese consumer-electronics whiz who invented the Sparko Box machine in 1967, apparently to get one over on a colleague who had mocked his singing around the factory. Quibbles surround the origin story – Daisuke Inoue independently invented his own karaoke box in 1971, and the bar-karaoke tradition predates both – but Negishi, who won the race to make a commercially available machine, tends to get the credit.

And, occasionally, the blame. Negishi’s invention has attracted a chorus of naysayers, starting with the live musicians who saw the Sparko Box as the latest robot hustling to snap up their jobs. In the decades since, non-believers have denounced the endeavour on aesthetic grounds, deeming it tedious, silly and kitsch. I understand this bad opinion, because until last year I shared it. Karaoke bars – clandestine lairs seemingly populated by the unembarrassable – are custom-made to intimidate the uninitiated. Squeamishness abounds, from the lunky mumbler to the hen-do posse tragically convinced they have mastered Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow. But I have come to believe even karaoke sinners deserve admiration, if they just commit to the bit. Self-indulgence is mandatory. Leaving your ego at the door would be a foolish error.

Last year, some friends and I succumbed to the tractor beam of a karaoke bar in a crowded east London basement, with a vigilant no-drinks-on-stage policy and catty drag queen hosts to enforce it. Private booths have their loyalists, but in that murkily fabulous venue, witnessing dreams manifest or be brutally dashed, I was forever sold on the magic of the public act. More than a nostalgic ritual, karaoke at its best is a high-stakes spectacle where honour and ridiculousness collide.

Not so quiet … Björk. Photograph: REX/Fotex

One recent evening, I stepped up for the sacred duty of performing Björk’s It’s Oh So Quiet. The drag queen, clocking my heterosexual overshirt, sourly regaled us with the cautionary tale of a man who had attempted the song a week before, exuding insufficient charisma. This was clearly a warning shot, and it gets to the heart of the matter. Karaoke tests not only our steel but also our deep-seated sense of propriety. You have to be willing to be ludicrous – to cast off humility and etiquette and basically look like a bit of a freak – to get a shot at transcendence.

In a room filled with potential hecklers, the threat, or certainty, of a stranger’s judgment adds to the faux-gravitas. The music starts. Tension ripples through the room. You find your pose and cast about for the opening note, discovering that breath control is not a technical skill but a mysterious elite art form. Maybe in the chorus, needing a distraction, you drop to your knees, palms imploring the sky. By then, at least in the mind’s eye, your adoring audience is heartily screaming along. At the end your friends enshrine the performance with whoops and hollers, like loving parents sticking your naff crayon drawing on the fridge.

skip past newsletter promotion

Karaoke’s conjuring of phantom star power occupies a unique space in music fandom, nothing like the communion of a concert singalong. To get on stage and hyperventilate through Olivia Rodrigo’s Vampire – fumbling the bridge, perhaps, but doing so with all your heart – may be an act of love, but it could never be mistaken for one of respect. Whether you go in for a bit of fun or a Stars in Their Eyes throwdown, the role you inhabit is fundamentally one of mischief: kill your idols, amuse your friends and banish all hope of sparking romance in the immediate vicinity.

Karaoke king Negishi practised the discipline until his final years, proving that talent comes and goes but dumb passion is a lifelong gift. His invention helped expand music as we use it, so broad a church that it can absorb failure and folly into its everyday function. Now he is clasping the great microphone in the sky, I hope he ascends to his rightful status as patron saint of iffy singers everywhere.

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