Rob Sheffield’s Turn Around Bright Eyes is a love story—about a girl, yes, but really about music, and more specifically the kind of music that’s sung, usually after a few drinks and always badly, in front of others at a karaoke bar. At one point, Sheffield asks himself, “Why do I get so obsessive?” The answer: “1. Music. 2. Girls.” Music comes first. And karaoke means music for the people, erasing the gulf between a star and fans. To quote Sly Stone: “Everybody is a star.”
Sheffield, a longtime writer for Rolling Stone (now a contributing editor), married in his twenties. His first wife died in her early thirties, and his book describes his journey after that—a move to New York City, a lot of insomnia, countless nights watching Lifetime movies while eating soy burgers, a gradual process of getting back on his feet, taking some advice from Grace Slick and finding somebody to love.
Karaoke served as an indispensable aide to this process. The title of Sheffield’s book refers to a karaoke classic: “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” by Bonnie Tyler, from 1983. For readers who don’t know the tune, there’s a refrain throughout of “turn around, bright eyes,” always accompanied by a counter-vocal that’s a variation on “every now and then I fall apart.” Sheffield starts out with Tyler, having just fallen apart.
The guy’s a music writer first and foremost, so his story involves plenty of detours into the world of pop. Rod Stewart and the Beatles get sizable chunks of prose, as does a trip the writer took to rock ‘n’ roll fantasy camp. He also mentions poems like Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” (and something by a guy named Yeats).
When Sheffield’s in love with karaoke, the book flies along. He writes as if having a conversation with a friend, full of potent descriptions and quick jokes. His voice sounds like a “vocal Chernobyl,” and the karaoke room in which he hones this deadly instrument seems to have been “decorated by a color-blind stripper in 1982.” The room exists “halfway between ‘suburban rec room’ and ‘motel meth lab.’”
For the historians out there, Turn Around traces the history of karaoke, originally an exotic import, now a part of mainstream culture. But it’s Sheffield’s personal history with the entertainment—he links karaoke’s infiltration of America to various events in his life. In 1986, Sheffield watched the Talking Heads song “Wild Wild Life,” which takes place in a Japanese karaoke bar, and thought the whole thing odd. In 1992, he saw an IRA assassin at a karaoke bar in the amusing movie The Crying Game. By 1997, karaoke was big enough to get into Julia Roberts’ My Best Friend’s Wedding, and late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel plugged home karaoke machines in a Rolling Stone interview in 2002.
But history matters less here than evocations of the karaoke experience. It’s a democratic art form with low barrier to entry. It’s easy. It promotes interaction with other humans. As Sheffield puts it, “I don’t have a singing problem…I have an audience problem.” At a karaoke bar, that problem can be solved, perhaps with a rendition of Neil Diamond, whom Sheffield refers to as the “Colonel Kurtz of the whole karaoke cult.”
Sheffield likes to mash up times and cultures, bringing together, for example, Greek mythology and rock. “Nice try, Oedipus,” he writes, “but there are in fact three ages of man: 1. He thinks Rod Stewart is cool. 2. He doesn’t think Rod Stewart is cool. 3. He is Rod Stewart.”
Or later, “[a] night of karaoke is just like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, except with twice as much Stevie Nicks and 70 percent more Lionel Richie.” Hard to know what he means, but points for effort. Rod Stewart would be happy to know that he has a part in defining the ages of man…or even that people still think about him. Stevie Nicks could teach Ovid a thing or two about heartbreak.
The conventional boy-meets-girl stuff in the book doesn’t proceed with the same ease. Sheffield’s new love turns out to be a space scientist of sorts. She causes him to write things like, “[a]s soon as I met Ally, I could tell her gravity was going to win. Her nuclear force was something I couldn’t resist. I was drawn into her gravitational pull…” Or, “she split the strong nuclear force holding my protons together, right down to my subatomic realms.” It’s sincere. It’s sweet. It wears thin.
Did I mention the guy writes about pop music for a living? So readers will have to bear some self-congratulatory asides. At rock ‘n’ roll fantasy camp, no one “knows any Kinks songs besides ‘Lola.’” Heathens! Sheffield imagines time-traveling conversations with Paul McCartney and includes an overdone “[y]our Beatles will change all though your life” allegory.
Still, we have karaoke.
Karaoke, Sheffield writes, is the only “American ritual that rewards people for doing things they suck at doing.” Part of pop’s beauty stems from its ability to pair love stories with punch or melody, transforming a personal experience into something people can grab and hold on to…even if it’s just a few folks in a poorly decorated dive bar.
Elias Leight writes about books and music for Paste and Popmatters. He is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.