Karaoke: A Brief History of the Sing-Along

Happy Friday! What better way to celebrate the end of the week than letting loose at your favorite karaoke bar. Before you round up your co-workers, here’s a brief history on this Japanese pastime.

You probably know that karaoke (カラオケ) is a Japanese word. It’s a blend of two words — kara (“empty”) + oke (short for “orchestra”). Karaoke is a form of entertainment where an amateur singer sings along with recorded instrumental music. Interestingly, the social conventions that evolved around this activity have changed over the years.

The first karaoke machine was created in the ‘70s. The machines started to show up in hotels and bars. During the early days, karaoke was presented to people as a diversion that enhanced the experience of drinking and socializing. In other words, karaoke was not a main attraction, it was more of a gimmick that allowed people to have fun while ordering more drinks.

In the ‘80s, the karaoke box (カラオケボックス) business started. When this happened, people were able to convene in a small, private room. These private rooms also offered guests the option to order food and drinks from a menu. The karaoke box fundamentally changed how people understood karaoke. Karaoke became the main attraction.

The karaoke machine itself has changed a lot, too. When the karaoke machine was introduced, it was an enhanced cassette tape player. By the late ‘80s, karaoke players started using Laser Disc technology. For those of you too young to remember the Laser Disc, it was basically a DVD that was the size of a 12 inch record with less than half the memory capacity. The significance of the Laser Disc karaoke machine was important. This was the first time a karaoke singer could see lyrics on a video monitor.

In the ‘90s, 通信カラオケ tsuushin karaoke (“communication karaoke”) machines were created. These were the first machines that provided songs and videos from a remote, commercial content vendor. Before tsuushin karaoke, singers could only sing songs that were available on the tapes or Laser Discs that were physically available at a particular bar or restaurant. After tsuushin karaoke, almost any song could be requested and played through the communication system between the machine and the commercial content provider.

Another big change in the cultural history of karaoke involves the singers. In the early days, karaoke machines were placed in a common area at bars and hotels. In this context, singers performed in front of an audience that included strangers. Later, when karaoke boxes became available, singers sang in front of a smaller audience that featured only friends and acquaintances. It was still a performance however.

The latest evolution in karaoke involves ワンカラ wankara (“solo karaoke”). It is a tiny karaoke box that only serves a single person. Wankara removes the audience altogether and allows singers to sing by themselves. Apparently, people love to sing alone because wankara is becoming very popular.

As far as I know, wankara is not available in the U.S. yet, but it certainly seems appealing to me. Singing is a great stress-buster! If I can sing as loudly (and as badly) as I want without worrying about an audience, then I’m all for it! What do you think?