Around 1990, when I was chair of the office sports and social club, someone suggested that we have a karaoke night. "What's karaoke?" I asked, as I hadn't heard the term before. Oh, those innocent days! Regrettably, no need for an explanation nowadays. Wikipedia tells me the word comes from the Japanese for "empty orchestra".
In my experience, people like singing, but most don't bother much after they've left their school singing lessons behind them, except perhaps in the bath or along to the radio when no one else is around. Folk club audiences are well-known for joining in choruses, even people who wouldn't get up and sing a song themselves, and a good audience may throw up an impressive range of harmonies. In pubs, I've found that people sometimes like to join in old pop songs that they know. Karaoke is designed for people who wish to sing, but who don't play an instrument or belong to a group. So far so good.
In some countries, karaoke is taken very seriously with competitions and championships. According to the New York Times, the dozens of karaoke bars in Portland, Oregon make it not just "the capital of karaoke" in the United States, but "one of the most exciting music scenes in America." I've never been there, but I suspect that this is seriously over-egging the pudding, but it does perhaps highlight the difference in attitude to karaoke in Britain and elsewhere.
Many years ago, I saw a biker girl in a club sing a beautiful version of the Fleetwood Mac song, Dreams; I wondered whether she was a singer in a band, but generally speaking such quality singing is a rarity. Too often in this country, young lads egg each other on to have a go after quite a few drinks, and when they do get up, they deliberately sing badly, as though bad out-of-tune singing is an eternally funny joke. I put this down to the tendency among certain elements in this country not to be too clever, not to aim to do something well: while they want to get up and show off, they don't want to be seen as caring too much about it, and so they act the goat. Fine, except for those who have to listen.
I'd never have a problem with people who get up and try their best, even if they aren't very good singers, because that is the whole point of karaoke. It's the yobbish attitude I find irritating. I did karaoke once at an office party, performing an old rock & roll song that I knew from singing with the band. The DJ running the karaoke kept trying to get me to stand behind the screen so I could read the words, while I kept saying, "I know the words!" I have to say that on that occasion, my colleagues who had a go didn't deliberately sing badly; in fact, a couple of lads dressed up as the singers they were taking off. Not being too serious, having a laugh but not deliberately singing badly. Perhaps I've just been unlucky, but that hasn't been my usual experience with karaoke in pubs.
There are two signs outside a pub that will usually deter me from entering: Sky Sports and karaoke night. Karaoke was never intended to produce high quality performances; it was designed to democratise singing by allowing people to sing along to a familiar backing, just as they might do to the radio at home. It's a shame it is too often hijacked by silly drunks.