7:03am

Sun August 4, 2013
Author Interviews

Finding Redemption In The Karaoke Bar

Originally published on Sun August 4, 2013 5:03 pm

Sixteen years ago, Rob Sheffield had everything going for him. He was young, ambitious, working as a music critic in Charlottesville, Va., and married to the woman he thought he'd spend the rest of his life with.

All that changed suddenly when his wife died of a pulmonary embolism. Sheffield was a widow and not yet 30 years old.

There were many factors that helped him dig himself out of the deep depression that followed: moving to a new city, the simple passage of time. But the most unexpected antidote for his grief came in the form of karaoke.

Rob Sheffield's new memoir is aptly titled Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke — the title quotes from the much-karaoked song "Total Eclipse of the Heart."

It may sound tongue-in-cheek, but Sheffield is not being ironic. Despite his self-professed, less-than-stellar singing voice, karaoke really did help him get over his grief and move on with his life.

"I was at a dark point in my life," he tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin. "I was by myself in a big city and feeling alone a lot of the time. Karaoke forced me to actually go out and leave my apartment, and make noise, which does not come naturally to me, especially when, like me, you have a completely terrible voice."

Karaoke even helped him meet his now-wife, he says. "I sort of got fascinated with her at the same time I was getting fascinated with karaoke," he says. "For me, getting crazy about this girl became part of the karaoke experience."


Interview Highlights

Are you ever too old to sing karaoke?

"One of my favorite places to do karaoke is down in Florida where my parents have a place in Ft. Myers, in an age-qualified community. They have their Wednesday night karaoke night, and my goodness, they're all doing Eddie Arnold, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and they are taking it really, really seriously. Something that I love about karaoke is that it's not youth-fixated the way so much of music culture can be. It's something that you could do when you were a little kid, you could do when you're an old person and you can do in between."

Do you and your wife know each other's karaoke canon?

"We always try to throw some surprises in to the mix. It's weird for me how music and memory are so entwined because when you go in for a night of karaoke you find yourself really flipping through the pages of your past and reliving these past moments ... It really shakes up your emotions in a way you can't necessarily plan on."

Describe a vocal doppleganger.

"Sometimes there's a singer whose voice fits yours. For me, Neil Diamond. I had always been a Neil Diamond fan. It was only when I started singing his songs that I realized that he was my vocal doppleganger."

We should be clear: It's not that you sound like Neil Diamond.

No! In my dreams!

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sixteen years ago, Rob Sheffield had everything going for him. He was young, ambitious, working as a music critic in Charlottesville, Virginia, married to the woman he thought he would spend the rest of his life with. All that changed suddenly when his wife died of a pulmonary embolism. Sheffield was a widower and not yet 30 years old. There were a lot of things that helped him dig himself out from the deep depression that followed; moving to New York, the simple passage of time. But the most unexpected antidote for his grief came in the form of karaoke.

Rob Sheffield's new memoir is aptly titled "Turn Around Bright Eyes," a quote from the much-karaoked song "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Rob Sheffield joins us from our studios in New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

ROB SHEFFIELD: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So there are going to be people out there who hear that introduction and say to themselves, really? Karaoke helped you get over grief and move on with your life? Can't be true, you must be saying this kind of tongue-in-cheek, but you are not being ironic here.

SHEFFIELD: Not at all. Karaoke starts when you conquer that primal fear of singing and just putting yourself up there and opening up. I was at a dark point in my life. I was by myself in a big city and feeling alone a lot of the time. Karaoke sort of forced me to actually go out and leave my apartment and to make noise, which...

(LAUGHTER)

SHEFFIELD: ...does not come naturally to me, especially when, like me, you have a completely terrible voice. So, it became part of coming back to life for me.

MARTIN: Describe what a vocal doppelganger is.

SHEFFIELD: Well, sometimes there's a singer whose voice fits yours. For me, Neil Diamond - I always had been a Neil Diamond fan. And it was only when I started singing his songs that I realized he was kind of my vocal doppelganger. Everybody has...

MARTIN: We should be clear - it's not that you sound like Neil Diamond.

SHEFFIELD: No, in my dreams.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET CAROLINE")

NEIL DIAMOND: (Singing) Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good. I've been inclined, to believe they never would...

MARTIN: Would you mind reading a bit? This is your description of Neil Diamond as your doppelganger.

SHEFFIELD: All right. (Reading) So, when you sing a Neil song, you hear Neil coaching you, guiding you, mentoring you. Neil wants to make you a louder person. If you're a boy, Neil wants you to sing like a man. He gives it to you straight: Look in the mirror, kid, or merely uphold your image in the reflective sheen of my gaze. You can't worry about whether you were good enough to sing this song. You can't hem and haw about whether you are worthy to hold this mic. You must belt. Act like your planned every second of this. Look at the woman when you sing to her and mean it.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Karaoke helped you connect with your now-wife, right?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. I met Allie around the time I got into karaoke. So, I kind of got fascinated with her at the time I was getting fascinated with karaoke. And I guess it's proven effective way of getting obsessed with anything, is get obsessed with a woman. So, for me, like, you know, going crazy about this girl really became part of the karaoke experience for me.

MARTIN: Your book is also, in a very different kind of vein, a meditation of sorts on marriage. Are you still surprising each other with your karaoke picks or do you know one another's canon by now?

SHEFFIELD: We always try to throw some surprises into the mix. It's weird how, for me, music and memory are so entwined because when you go in for a night of karaoke you find yourself really sort of flipping through the pages of your past and reliving these past moments, and someone will sing a song that reminds you of a time that you've forgotten, or you'll start to sing a song and you'll remember the experiences that you had while listening to it. And it really shakes up your emotions in ways you can't necessarily plan on.

MARTIN: This is a practical and perhaps self-serving question, as a fan of karaoke myself. But I wonder if you think are you ever too old to sing karaoke?

SHEFFIELD: One of my favorite places that I do karaoke is down in Florida where my parents have a place in Ft. Myers in an age-qualified community. And they have their Wednesday night karaoke night. And, my goodness, they're all doing Eddie Arnold, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and they're taking it really, really seriously. And something that I love about karaoke is that it's not youth-fixated the way so much a music culture can be. It's really something that you could do when you're a little kid, you can do when you're an old person and you can do in between.

MARTIN: Well, Rob Sheffield, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. His new memoir is called "Turn Around Bright Eyes." Thanks so much, Rob.

SHEFFIELD: Thank you so much, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART")

WEEKEND NPR KARAOKE TEAM: (Singing) Every now and I then I fall apart, turn around bright eyes, every now and I then I fall apart...

BONNIE TYLER: (Singing) And I need you now tonight, and I need you more...

TEAM: (Singing) ...more than ever...

TYLER: (Singing) ...and if you only hold me tight...

TEAM: (Singing) ...you'll be holding on forever...

TYLER: (Singing) ...and we'll only be making it right...

MARTIN: Oh, that's good. Ladies and gentlemen, the weekend NPR karaoke team. If you are a glutton for punishment, our full take is up on the WEEKEND EDITION Facebook page. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.