Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Inventor of Karaoke Has Died, But His Legacy Is Louder Than Ever

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Let’s raise a toast to the inventor of karaoke, the late great Japanese engineer Shigeichi Negishi. He devised the first karaoke machine in 1967, the “Sparko Box.” This invention changed the soundtrack of our lives forever. Negishi’s death was announced this week, at the age of 100, which means a century of making the world a louder, more tone-deaf place. His legacy is that all of us who are terrible singers can live out our tawdriest pop-star dreams for a few minutes of karaoke glory. We owe him so much.

If you’re grabbing the mic this weekend in your local sleazy late-night bar, take a moment to sing a chorus extra loud for this mad genius. He gave the world a whole new way to sing. For all of us who live for karaoke, and those moments of pitchy transcendence we find thanks to his invention, this great man is the Mr. Roboto we all owe the most domo of arigatos.

What drove Negishi to invent the Sparko Box? It’s simple: Like so many karaoke aficionados, he couldn’t sing. In the Sixties, working at his Tokyo electronics company, he always loved to sing, but was mocked for his awful voice. When an employee teased him for crooning badly around the office, Negishi mused, “If only they could hear my voice over a backing track!”

That was his lightbulb moment—like Archimedes in his bathtub, like Isaac Newton under the apple tree—that gave us the first karaoke machine. In Matt Alt’s book, Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World, Negishi described how it felt to hear his voice on the speakers. “It works! That’s all I was thinking,” Negishi recalled. “Most of all, it was fun. I knew right away I’d discovered something new.”

Karaoke became a Japanese obsession in the 1970s, associated with hard-drinking salarymen kicking back after work with sake and song. But nobody predicted it would have such a massive impact around the world. It transformed music fandom forever—suddenly, anybody could get up and sing, even those of us with zero talent. As I describe it in my book on the karaoke lifestyle, Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke, “There is no other ritual in our culture that rewards people for doing things they suck at doing.”

Over 50 years later, Mr. Negishi’s vision has given us several billion tipsy renditions of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “Bohemian Rhapsody, “Hotline Bling,” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” He wanted to call this contraption “karaoke,” Japanese for “empty orchestra.” The “kara” in karaoke is the same one that’s in “karate,” which means “empty hand,” or fighting with no weapons. Both disciplines have a similar “open” ethic: no armor, no tools, no live instruments, nothing to hide behind, just your nerves. (And maybe a little liquid refreshment.)

Karaoke had many inventors, of course—at least five people independently devised karaoke machines between 1967 and 1971. Besides Negishi, the most famous is Daisuke Inoue, the drummer/engineer who created the “8 Juke” in 1971. He was honored at a Harvard ceremony in 2004, for inventing “an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.” Inoue got a hero’s ovation—a room full of scientists, including at least 3 Nobel Prize winners, rose to serenade him with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” But Negishi’s Sparko Box came four years earlier.

In America, k-culture caught on slowly. A 1986 Billboard article explained the fad with the headline, “Japan Expected To Approve Singalong Club Licensing Fee.” “There are about 200,000 bars and halls equipped with karaoke hardware,” Billboard reported. “Customers are charged from 55 cents to $1.10 for each song with karaoke accompaniment.” Early versions included the Panasonic Karaoke Song-Mate and the Singing Machine. “The machine is still relatively unknown,” the Singing Machine CEO told Rolling Stone in 1987. But he had faith it would catch on. “It’s great therapy, sure,” he said. “I get letters, testimony from people who say, ‘I bought your machine, and it changed my life. I am more open. I can speak in public. Suddenly, I have a lot of confidence.”

Many people got their first look at a “Singing Machine” in the 1988 rom-com When Harry Met Sally. Others learned about karaoke from Talking Heads’ 1986 MTV hit “Wild Wild Life.” (Yet that was just the beginning—karaoke scenes have been a movie staple ever since, in classics like Lost In Translation, 500 Days of Summer, Crossroads, and the timeless teen-horror classic I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.)

But in the Nineties, it really took off. This wasn’t just a new music toy—this was a way of life. Karaoke revolutionized the whole idea of public performance—it gave any amateur fan permission to cross the line and rock the mic, belting out of tune in front of an audience. You don’t need a virtuoso voice. You don’t need to rehearse the lyrics. All you need is enthusiasm, passion, and a horrific lack of shame.

Karaoke creates a safe space where wallflowers and introverts can explode into loudmouth sex-machine divas for a few minutes, where no-talents can screech our way through “Drivers License” without hitting a single note. Where else do total strangers gather to cheer and applaud each other for doing things badly? Where else can you share a mic with somebody you’ve never met before, butchering a Selena Gomez slow jam at 2 a.m.? It’s a temporary community where we consent to treat each other like rock stars for a night.


That’s why karaoke became a permanent part of music culture. It’s a way for singers to find their voices. Christina Aguilera got her first record contract with a tape where she karaoked a Whitney Houston song. When Taylor Swift first went to Nashville to pass out her demos, it was just the 11-year-old Tay singing along to a karaoke machine, on hits by Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks, and LeAnn Rimes, plus the Grease show-stopper “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”

This is the world Shigeichi Negishi invented. He stopped making his Sparko Boxes in 1975. Only one remains in existence, kept by his family. But his vision lives on forever. If you’re screaming “Bohemian Rhapsody” somewhere this weekend, throw in a few extra Galileos for the originator.

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