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Song Remains The Same



 The Song Remains the Same?

By Kim Mellen

An etymological moment: The word "karaoke" (Japanese, of course) takes the "kara" part from karappo, meaning empty, and "oke" from okesutura, or orchestra. The legend of the advent of the empty orchestra more than 20 years ago, tossed around on many a translated-from-Japanese Web site, begins with a strolling guitarist who had a regular gig at a Kobe snack bar. The owner kept tapes of the guitar accompaniment, which he put on when the musician couldn't come in. The patrons enjoyed singing along to them. Little did these Kobeans know that this modest "completion" of the empty six-string would send shockwaves throughout the world more far-reaching and enduring than their city's 1995 earthquake. Throw in the CD revolution of the Eighties, with the all-important ability to skip instantly between tracks, and boom: an industry.

 The Japanese are not afraid to party, nor are they afraid to sing, according to Karaoke Scene online magazine ( A tradition of solo singing at gatherings made the Japanese easy conduits for the fervent spread of this new technology. "It has never mattered whether the person sings well or not. Even if he sings out of tune, it can spark laughter and make the party more lively. The Japanese are generous when they listen to other people sing, and can easily sing in front of others without feeling reluctance. ... For corporate soldiers living in a stressful society, there is no other entertainment that can make them feel so refreshed." Karaoke indeed began as wholesome entertainment for businessmen, but quickly became popular among all sectors of society and spread to the far reaches of the globe. Along the way the format has evolved from cassettes and CDs with only the musical accompaniment, to CDs with still graphics (CD+Gs) and scrolling lyrics, to laser discs with all that plus full-motion videos.

How a song gets from a gleam in the musician's eye to a karaoke laserdisc is as convoluted as anything in the music business. The elementary version: First, the publisher makes his deal with the songwriter for the publishing rights. Included in these publishing rights is sheet music, video rights, "a whole slew of rights that normal people would not think about," explains Barnstormer Bruce. "What's happened in the last 10 years is there's been a karaoke right: the right to display the words on the screen, the right to re-record the song, and limited use of that rendition." Producers of karaoke pay the publishing companies for this package of rights to re-create the songs or alter original tracks, to put them into different keys and such. Although you can buy stereos that turn down the vocals of original songs for a home-baked version of karaoke, this is not the case with legitimate karaoke, in which the original artists' tracks are never used.

In the flurry of publishing rights, most artists don't even know their songs are being karaokified -- they'd never imagine their songs would be used to that end. This brings up the ethical questions of karaokification (if I may be so morphologicially bold), but really, we're talking the music industry here. "If they have Jimi Hendrix doing Nike commercials ... is that more of a bastardization?" Bruce asks. "I think it is."

Nonetheless, some artists (or the owners of their catalog) withhold the so-called "karaoke rights," among them Paul Simon and Bob Seger. "They also happen to be artists that have a lot of integrity," Bruce submits, only half-jokingly. And if you see songs off of, for instance, the Beatles' White Album, "The word is that it's coming from Mexico. It's illegal, but they're still out there."

Sometimes, too, the rights can be withdrawn, halting any further empty orchestration of the artists' catalog, as is the case with our friends the Eagles. Songs that have already been committed to disk and disseminated throughout the lonely-hearts bars of the world can't be recalled in any sort of practical manner. This, along with the karaoke's version of bootlegging, creates a sort of black market in the largely innocent world of karaoke trading, fueled in part by demands for hard-to-get or out-of-print collections and certain versions of songs ("Delta Dawn" as done by Bette Midler instead of Helen Reddy, for instance, or the full vs. abridged versions of Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?").

And just like the business behind karaoke, being a Karaoke Jockey, or KJ, is more complicated than simply changing discs, explain Debbie and Dennis Saiki, owners of Laser Entertainment Techsys, a local company that rents machines (with or without accompanying KJs) for home parties and supplies a number of local venues with equipment. As the evening begins, the KJ typically has to deal with crowd apathy and shyness; the buzz of the speakers punctuated only by a number or two sung by the KJ. "My husband comes with me a lot, and other relatives, so if nobody else is singing, I at least have some backups and it's not just me," says Pam Spencer of Absolutely Awesome Karaoke, a mobile KJ business. "We entice, threaten, start contests to pay off bar tabs." As the celebration progresses, the KJ has to sort through an increasing deluge of requests and try to stick with an equal-opportunity rotation, often fending off impatient drunks eager to sing.

So is there any chance of currying favor with your hired host to get your song bumped up in rotation, say by brandishing a little cash money? "None. Forget it," insists the Common Interest's KJ Mike Stevens. He claims to have turned down $100 bribes and a suspicious plea from a doctor who said his pager had just summoned him to go deliver a baby. Greasing palms doesn't fly, at least at the Common Interest. "Tipping is nice, but it doesn't bump your song up here! We have a certain rotation to follow so that new singers take precedence over previous singers," KJ Koury, ever the diplomat, explains. Nor will a request for a song a particular KJ strongly likes or dislikes effect your place in line.

 Koury likes "That's Life," "Mack the Knife," and "Waterfalls." Stevens has a soft spot for "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" by Elton John. Koury grimaces at Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the B-52's "Love Shack," and Stevens' turn-offs are simple: "Any country." Citing the crowd's love for these particular songs, though, Koury said he didn't mind them too much. Spencer dislikes Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition" and David Allen Coe's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name," and likes "anything sung by someone who can actually carry a note." Then there are the songs that ought be reserved for the truly talented, songs the KJs frequently cited as being over most vocalists' heads: "New York, New York," R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It," and Young M.C.'s "Bust a Move." If you think you're up to snuff, then maybe you're ready for the glorious, authentic Pacific Rim karaoke experience.

Kim Mellen
Staff writer Austin Chronicle

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