IT MEANS “empty orchestra”—a rather downbeat, drab expression— when translated in its native Japanese. But karaoke certainly takes on a much livelier, uplifting feel for anyone who’s ever stepped onstage for a night of fun singing along to well-known tunes in front of a live audience.
Belting it out to classic rock, country and contemporary songs that have been stripped of vocal tracks, karaoke performers can span a spectrum of ages—and abilities. Nightclubs, bars and restaurants across America have evenings of entertainment devoted exclusively to karaoke, and there are karaoke competitions on local and even global levels. (The 2013 World Championship was held in Finland, in November.)
“It’s good, wholesome fun with your friends,” says Brian Jones, a bartender at the San Francisco Rose, a Dallas nightspot that features karaoke three nights a week. “Everyone likes to sing; in the car, in the shower. Only with karaoke, it’s even better, because everyone else in the room also knows the song—so you don’t feel so alone.”
How popular is karaoke? The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon loves having “lip-sync-offs” with his guests, and he’s had epic karaoke matches with actors John Krasinski, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Paul Rudd. The truTV series Killer Karaoke, in which contestants are challenged to sing a hit song while enduring hilarious physical challenges, is into its second season, hosted by Mark McGrath, lead singer for the rock band Sugar Ray. “People singing, having fun, going through all these insane challenges, all for the chance to win a couple bucks,” McGrath says. “It’s all good.”