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Karaoke (pronounced kear-ee-OH-kee) is a popular form of entertainment in which amateur singers sing along with prerecorded pop-music (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3) songs stripped of their vocal tracks. The word "karaoke" is a combination of two Japanese words: kara, meaning empty, and oke, meaning orchestra. Recorded music on a cassette tape or a compact disc (CD; see entry under 1980s—Music in volume 5) provides the instrumental track of a band or an orchestra, with the singer's voice stripped out, to be filled by anyone brave enough to hold the microphone at a party or a karaoke bar.

Invented by Kisaburo Takagi of the Nikkodo Company, karaoke originated in a bar in Kobe, Japan, in 1972. By 1976, the first home karaoke machines were marketed to the Japanese public. Performing karaoke-style fit perfectly with the popular Asian custom of singing at public events. Even before karaoke, it was not unusual in Asian culture for amateurs to rise and offer a song at a wedding or other gathering. The point of this was not to demonstrate excellence in singing, but rather to show good will and comradeship. The introduction of the karaoke machine allowed singers to choose from a wide variety of songs and to read the words from a song sheet. Video karaoke added lyrics on the screen with a bouncing ball to help the whole audience sing along. Soon after its introduction, karaoke spread not only in Japan but through Korea and Southeast Asia.

Karaoke first came to the United States in Asian restaurants. Non–Asian Americans were introduced to the new fad by Johnny Carson (1925–; see entry under 1960s—TV and Radio in volume 4) on The Tonight Show (see entry under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3) on NBC in 1986. Soon karaoke bars opened all over the United States. Americans do not have a long tradition of performing for each other, but they do often have a hunger for the spotlight, and karaoke offered amateurs a moment on center stage. Although the first karaoke venues were bars and restaurants, home karaoke machines became more popular in the 1990s.

Karaoke continues to thrive as a form of self expression and amusement in bars and homes throughout the world. In 1999, it was even taken to the Balkan town of Kosovo to entertain refugees in the war-torn city, perhaps proving true the words of Nikkodo executive Akihiko Kurobe, quoted in Transpacific: "Karaoke has no boundaries or prejudices. It is ageless and impartial to gender. It will last forever. Karaoke is like your family or lover. It makes sadness half and happiness double."

—Tina Gianoulis

For More Information

Gonda, Thomas A., Jr. Karaoke: The Bible: Everything You Need to Know about Karaoke. Oakland, CA: G-Man Publishing, 1993.

"Karaoke = Kurobe." Transpacific (Vol. 9, no. 6, October 1994): pp. 24–26.

Karaoke Scene.http://www.karaokescene.com/ (accessed April 1, 2002).

Wolpin, Stewart. "High-Tech Hootenanny: Can Karaoke Conquer America?" Video Magazine (Vol. 16, no. 1, April 1992): pp. 30–36.