Karaoke ruined Rob Sheffield’s life, and it’s the best thing that could’ve happened to him.
In 2000, the lanky Rolling Stone writer was a 33-year-old widower living, ominously enough, in the shadow of the World Trade Center, doing little more than sitting around his lonely apartment in sweatpants watching Lifetime movies. What finally snapped him out of his three-year grief-induced stupor was the night he stayed up well past dawn, tearing through the songbook at a joint in Koreatown decorated like a ’70s drug den. In that moment, karaoke became Sheffield’s addiction. His craving to sing obscure Natalie Imbruglia singles for strangers taught him to care about something again, transforming him from an introverted pop-culture uber-geek into the loud boy his Irish mother always wanted. It also set him on the path to meeting Ally, the goth-punk astronomer-DJ he’d eventually marry.
In his first book, Love Is a Mix Tape, Sheffield threaded music through his personal Armageddon: the death of his first wife to a pulmonary embolism. Turn Around Bright Eyes (It Books, 288 pages, $25.99) is effectively the sequel, in which music pulls him back from an abyss filled with made-for-TV movies starring Jennie Garth. Any other pop critic and this might register as sentimental glop. To paraphrase one of his peers, Chuck Klosterman, if music could actually save someone’s life, why make cancer patients suffer through chemo when a Pavement record would suffice?
But Sheffield seems to squeeze every word through a big, beating heart. Like Roger Ebert with movies, Sheffield has never heard a song he doesn’t want to love. He’s the quintessential second-generation rock writer, a fan par excellence. This makes him the ideal essayist for the healing properties of karaoke, which lends the passionately untalented all the vicarious celebrity they need.
Turn Around Bright Eyes lacks the focus of Love Is a Mix Tape, playing out something like a garbled How I Met Your Mother marathon: He introduces Ally in the second paragraph, but saves the story of what actually brought them together until near the end. In between, there are vignettes and essays, anecdotes set in redneck bars and retirement homes, and discussions of the Beatles and the deeper meaning of Rod Stewart’s career that only make faint connections back to the theme of karaoke-as-catharsis. It’s messy, but Sheffield is consistently funny, effusive and, most of all, sincere. And anyway, the rambling structure will feel familiar to anyone who’s spent an evening at the Alibi or Chopsticks II, where trains of thought halt so you can butcher “Forever in Blue Jeans,” then return to the table and go, “Now, where was I? Oh yes! My Rush theory…”
GO: Rob Sheffield visits Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Wednesday, Aug. 14. 7:30 pm. Free.