The Karaoke King

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Brooklyn-based writer and karaoke obsessive Brian Raftery has written a book about his passion for belting out songs in public. Don't Stop Believing: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life follows the hobby from its Japanese origins across the ocean to America and into Raftery's heart. With over ten years of karaoke experience, from the cheaply produced laser discs to live action performances backed by the Georgia-based indie rock group Of Montreal, Raftery has sung it all. TIME talks to him about his obsession, his fondness for an obscure Ghostbuster's II song, and why he doesn't want to die while singing along to R. Kelly.

In the book, you credit American Idol for popularizing karaoke in America. What was once a dreaded barroom activity is now almost hip. But we had talent search shows before American Idol and they didn't help karaoke. What about Star Search?
The thing with Star Search is that the people always seemed to be sort of creepy. There were a couple other shows in the '80s with ridiculous names and they sort of seemed all the same: a lot of creepily stage-managed kids and then a lot of people who are just trying so hard that they're pandering. There was always some 45-year-old dude singing "Wait 'Till the Sun Shines, Nellie." When they were trying to introduce karaoke to the U.S. in the '80s you had a lot of people who were raised to think that if you can't sing you shouldn't sing. But with American Idol, now if you ask any 19-year-old who knows he doesn't have any musical talent if he'd like to sing, well, of course he does. It's a more natural part of life now to be more exhibitionist.

What is the worst karaoke performance you've seen?
I went on this cruise ship for a story I did for Wired, a karaoke competition on a boat from Finland to Estonia and back again. It was an international competition and it got very rowdy and dramatic and ridiculous and I loved that, but at one point there was a woman who came out dressed as Barbara Streisand in Yentl and I think she started singing "Feelings." I was just like, what is going on? Is this something I'm not understanding because of a cultural difference? Is it common in Russia to not only sing Barbara Streisand but to dress up as one of her less recognizable characters?

How many songs do you think you've sung?
A conservative estimate is maybe 1,000 songs. It may be closer to 1,500. It sounds like a lot, but certain nights it would just be me and a couple friends and we'd sing 20 songs each, so that would add up over time. But yeah, it's got to be at least 1,500. And certainly 100 of those would be "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger, which is the song we sort of did to death.

Have you ever sung a song that you thought you knew only to find, when the lyrics come up, that you've been completely wrong the entire time?
You there's definitely been a couple songs where I'll watch the lyrics come up and be like, that's what they've been saying the whole time? I thought I knew [Billy Joel's] "We Didn't Start the Fire" and then I looked at the lyrics and realized I had at least three or four of the entries about the 1950s wrong. And for 20 years, I'd thought the chorus to David Bowie's "Young Americans" was "She was a young American." While at karaoke earlier this summer, I realized he was actually singing "she wants a young American." It's only one word, but it completely changes the meaning of the song, and I was so taken aback that I actually stopped the song midway through — a rarity in my karaoke career.

Do you still get nervous?
Absolutely. If there's a large group of people I don't know, I definitely get nervous. There are two options to deal with this: wither away and be a wallflower while you're singing — which I can never do — or to be overly excited, which tends to be my default way to deal with nerves, and it always makes me look somewhat psychotic. Nobody wants to be the guy who's already jumping up and down when it's only the second song and no one else is at that point yet.

You mention Bobby Brown a lot in the book, specifically this one song from Ghostbusters II. I have to tell you, I'm incredibly excited because I was unaware that this song even existed.
You've never heard "On Our Own?" It's a pretty amazing song. There's a great video, with Rick Moranis and Donald Trump. That song combines a number of things I love, which is a really ridiculous and poorly done rap, a really goofy R&B chorus, and the memory of Bobby Brown at the most ridiculous point in his career. "Sister Christian" is my favorite karaoke song, but "On Our Own" is in a tough battle for the number two spot.

Do you still go do karaoke all the time?
No, not nearly as much. In my twenties when I first moved to New York, we would go almost every other weekend. It was pretty ridiculous for a while. But in the last few years it's died off. I actually developed asthma a few years ago so that's made it kind of uncomfortable. Sometimes when I sing now, I feel like I'm going to pass out.

Last year my friend and I became obsessed with singing R. Kelly's "I'm a Flirt" every single night that we went out. And that song has R. Kelly, it has T-Pain, it has T.I. It's a pretty long song, and we don't do it well at all but you have to have a little bit of stamina to get through. And definitely at the end of the song I'm winded. I get to the point where I hear the first few notes and I'm like oh man, I'm not gonna make it. And that would be a terrible way to die. No one wants to die at a karaoke bar doing an average R. Kelly song.

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