'Love is a Mix Tape' Author Rob Sheffield on His New Book, 8 Best Karaoke Songs

"Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke" is a poignant but funny account of how karaoke helped the writer move on from the terrible grief that followed the tragic death of his wife.

When in The Smiths’ "Rubber Ring" Morrissey implored, "Don't forget the songs / That saved your life", he was speaking earnestly to the power of music to help us through our moments of deepest and darkest despairing. Journalist Rob Sheffield’s new book Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke, is about just that; indeed, it is a poignant but also charming and exceedingly funny account of how karaoke helped him move on from the terrible grief that followed the tragic death of his wife Renee Crist in 1997. It’s the veritable sequel to his 2007 tome Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time -- which had framed his courtship of Crist in the context of their shared love of the customized cassette.

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Karaoke, often considered as merely drunken birthday fun, actually makes perfect sense as a grief recovery plan. One might consider that it is simply a pop culture version of Arthur Janov's Primal Scream Therapy -- which, by the way, specifically inspired the Tears For Fears karaoke-ready hit song “Shout”. And it’s certainly a lot more fun belting out a fervent, unselfconscious version of “Livin’ On A Prayer” than letting out primeval shrieks in your psychologist’s office.

“One of the nice things about karaoke” Sheffield reminds us, “you just have to get up there and do it, throwing all your heart into the song…even when you know you’re making a first-class fool out of yourself.”

The book’s obsessive detail on the protocols and guidelines of karaoke might seem a little much for some. But Sheffield’s inimitable humor makes it a delightful page turner. For example, he includes a hilarious chapter recounting his visit to Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp (“Isn’t that redundant?” he asks of the moniker.) And of his new love, Ally, he warmly enthuses that, “Boy George has been her karaoke twin, her go-to guy.” Few books so keenly capture the irrepressible redemptive power of music.

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Here, the author expounds on the perfect karaoke odes to the glorious and tragic world of showbiz.

“Pop Life,” Prince (1985).

A funky smash from the period when Prince was going psychedelic and wearing raspberry berets. The Purple One reflects on what it means to be a star, especially when you’re a sensitive soul. Spoiler: It all ends when the bubble bursts with a big loud *pop!*

“Celebrity Skin,” Hole (1998).

 The ideal karaoke jam: it’s fast, it’s rocking, it’s over in three minutes, and it sums up the pain of waking up hungover somewhere in Hollywood.

“Fame,” Irene Cara (1979).

The evergreen disco ode to getting famous, living forever, and lighting up the sky like a flame. This song is so perky and danceable, it’s easy to overlook the seething psycho desperation right below the surface. And what better place for psycho desperation than the karaoke lounge?

“Ziggy Stardust,” David Bowie (1972).

The patron saint of all karaoke singers, the rock star who always loves trying on other people’s personalities for a few minutes at a time. “Ziggy Stardust” is the ultimate karaoke anthem, as Bowie lives out his star-struck fantasy of the cracked actor as a rock & roll messiah from outer space.

“Californication,” Red Hot Chili Peppers (1999).

Bowie makes a cameo appearance in this song too--it’s the Chili Peppers’ most karaoke-friendly power ballad, a bittersweet celebration of the fickle pleasures of L.A. dreams.

“Midnight Train To Georgia,” Gladys Knight and the Pips (1973).

Yeah, well -- L.A. proved too much for the man, even though he kept dreaming he could be a star. As the Pips sing sadly, “A superstar / But he didn’t get far.” Yet it’s not a total loss, dude, because when you take that midnight train back home, Gladys is riding along with you.

“Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” Dionne Warwick (1968).

Dionne decides to get out of Hollywood while she still remembers how to drive--and no time to drag any passengers along.

“Don’t Stop Believin’,” Journey (1981).

Like Gladys Knight and the Pips, Steve Perry and the boys are riding a midnight train, but it’s going anywhere. There’s a reason this song is a permanent fixture in any karaoke bar--it sums up the experience of singing along with a room full of streetlight people, sharing the dream, everybody feeling like they can be a star for a night. Hold on to that feeling, brothers and sisters.

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