“Turn Around Bright Eyes”, by Rob Sheffield

22book"Turn Around Bright Eyes" by Rob Sheffiield.

In the early 1980’s a short-lived phenomenon burned strong across the country.  It was called the lip-sync contest. Basically, it involved a person, or group of people, pretending to sing and play instruments along with a recording of a popular song.   There would be organized contests of these performances, as people pretended to be rock and pop stars.

At my high school, the auditorium was given over one evening for a student lip-sync contest. For weeks prior, flyers advertising the event hung in the halls and on the lockers, asking for entrants. Against all odds (which was one of the Phil Collins songs lip-synced to, now that I think about it), this attracted the “cool kids” as well as the outsiders. The call of fame, however small scale and fleeting, was apparently irresistible to all social groups.

The student body showed up, filling the seats, while our classmates “performed” on the stage, multi-colored spotlights, dry ice smoke and all. Duran Duran, The Police, Madonna: all were fair game.  I remember me and my friends’ mix of cynicism and fascination as we watched a cadre of some of the surfer guys air-guitaring to Rush’s “YYZ”.  They had it down, note-perfect. If they had been plugged in.

The lip-sync craze wasn’t just kid’s stuff, though. A friend’s older cousin, when he wasn’t practicing the synthesizer lick from Van Halen’s “Jump”, would go out on the weekends and hit lip-sync contests at the local bars.  These were contests for money, and he’d spike his hair up into a Billy Idol coiffure and rake in the dough mouthing along to “Rebel Yell” and “Eyes Without a Face”.

By the late 80’s lip-sync contests were gone. Maybe people realized how fundamentally silly the whole thing was.

Yet, there was another fast route to stardom, to those 15 minutes of semi-fame, which also caught on in the 1980’s. This one survived. You may have heard of it – its name is karaoke. It bears similarities to lip-sync, yet in this case amateur singers sing along (on mic, in their own voices) to the backing tracks of popular songs.

Rob Sheffield, a music journalist and contributing editor at Rolling Stone, has written a paean to karaoke called Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke (after the song “Total Eclipse of the Heart“, by Bonnie Tyler  – apparently a favorite of karaoke singers.)

At its core, Turn Around Bright Eyes is a love story. Actually, it’s three love stories. One is about the author’s falling in love again with life after his first wife’s untimely death, the second about falling for the woman who would become his next wife.  The third, and overarching connector between the two, is Sheffield’s love of karaoke.

Sheffield came to karaoke late in life and was an unlikely candidate. Shy and bookish (in his words), he found self-expression and conquered his shyness through singing in front of others on stage and living out a version of the rock star fantasy so many have.

He writes:

“If you’re someone like me, a fan who loves music but could never hack it as a musician, karaoke changes everything. It unlocks the door to center stage. It’s a safe and welcoming place where anyone can join in the music. So even if you never summoned the courage or skill to cross that line from fan to participant, karaoke is something anybody can do.  Your only limits are emotional. Indeed, it forces you to keep upping your emotional ante, as you voice your innermost feelings out loud. And that’s the weirdest thing about karaoke – sometimes you can feel like you’re experiencing some of the most honest, most intimate moments of your life, while butchering a Hall & Oates song at 2 a.m. in a room full of strangers.”

Admittedly (go on – admit it), an entire book centering on karaoke sounds like it could get a bit monotonous, doesn’t it? Luckily, Sheffield’s a very funny and likeable writer. He also breaks up the story here and there with some detours out of the karaoke world into chapters on Rod Stewart, The Beatles, Rush, and a trip to Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. These chapters are some of the best parts of the book, particularly the Stewart section (“No man plans to turn into Rod Stewart, it just happens.”)

Even though I still have no desire to participate in karaoke, after reading Sheffield’s book, I definitely have a new appreciation of the (dare I say it) art form.

As Sheffield says, “In the karaoke universe, we can be whoever we want. We express ourselves by turning into colorful and disastrous parodies of pop stars who are already appalling parodies of human beings, and somehow that’s how we end up as our most sincere version of ourselves. When you step into the song, you’re not sure who you’re going to be on the other side.”

“Imagine There’s No Beatles”, by Charlie Bermant

nobeatlesWhat would Jimi Hendrix be doing now if he hadn’t died in 1970? Would he have moved in a jazz direction and turned his back on mainstream rock? How about Jim Morrison? Abandoned music to become an expatriate poet in Paris? What about Janis Joplin? Nick Drake? Kurt Cobain?

Speculative music journalism is a small, but interesting, genre that posits fictional stories and theories that attempt to answer similar questions to the above. Writer Charlie Bermant has self-published a slim, humorously speculative volume called Imagine There’s No Beatles. Presented as a collection of imagined news articles, the book puts forth the scenario that the Fab Four died in a boat explosion while on tour in The Philippines in 1966. In a series of faux clippings from The Associated Press, Variety, 16 Magazine, Rolling Stone, Time and others, the short-term legacy of the band is played out with the posthumous release of the recordings which would have comprised Revolver.

Bermant does a good job outfitting each piece in the style of the publication it’s purportedly from, as well as using key historical figures in an authentic way to contextualize and flesh-out the “reportage”.

In this alternate history, the resulting events from the Beatles’ premature deaths include Beatles manager Brian Epstein taking on a managerial role with the Bee Gees. Roger McGuinn is ousted from the Byrds partly because he wants to record an album of all Beatles songs in tribute, which leaves David Crosby in control. In the fictional Rolling Stone article Crosby says “People were looking to us for answers, to pick up where the Beatles left off. We started playing a few Beatles songs onstage just out of respect, but pretty soon that’s all some people wanted to hear.” McGuinn hooks up with Brian Wilson, who has left the Beach Boys to pursue new music. In a clever barb aimed at the current Beach Boys, the fictional journalist writes: “Brian’s agreement with the Beach Boys doesn’t allow them to record new music but he doesn’t think that’ll be a problem. ‘I know those guys,’ he said. ‘They’ll be happy if they can play those same songs, over and over, forever.’”

I don’t want to give away all the hypothetical history, but suffice to say the Bee Gees become the world’s surrogate Beatles before breaking up in 1969. Fictional Peter Frampton in a 1969 Melody Maker article: “After being together all their lives they were turning into different people and it was starting to make the music more interesting. But Barry brought Yoko to the studio and she started making suggestions and Robin freaked.”

Hmmm…a world without “Stayin’ Alive”…maybe a good thing?

“Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise”, by David Rothenberg

bugbookTo join
To feel
The cicada’s song
-ancient Maori chant, first written down in 1853


There’s a species of cicada that emerges from underground only every 17 years. It does this to sing, mate and then die in the few weeks it has in the fresh air and leafy trees. Great swarms of these insects cover trees in the Northeast U.S. when this emergence happens, creating an overpowering wave of sound as the males call to the females.

Musician, author and philosopher David Rothenberg uses this cicada phenomenon as the jumping off point in his book Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise for an examination of the rhythm, melody and harmonic structure of insect sound and its influence on human music.  People-made music, at its primal origins, is inspired by all of nature – waves, wind, animal noises – down to the breath and the heartbeat. Rothenberg’s hypothesis is that music evolved primarily from listening to insects and that insect sounds are not just noise but have a genuine musical structure. Having explored bird music and whale music in previous books, he feels that the rhythmic pulses, twitters and whirs, the melodies of crickets, katydids, and other insects are most closely tied to the fundamental beat of humanity.

The music of bugs has inspired poets and authors going back thousands of years. Rothenberg relates examples of poetry from ancient Japan and China, which praise the songs of insects. In fact, in China, to this day the practice of keeping pet crickets for their song is still not uncommon (though raising crickets for fighting – much like cock fighting in other parts of the world – has largely subsumed the keeping of crickets for their mellifluous qualities.)  Lars Fredriksson, also known as Mr. Fung, has assembled an orchestra of 108 crickets and has issued recordings and given concerts with his entomological ensemble.  This predilection for the song of the cricket is such in China  that there are even cricket shops.  Rothenberg relates a humorous story from Mr. Fung:

“A few years ago I was standing in line at a cricket shop in Beijing,” says Fung. “I had an iPod with American cricket sounds and I put the headphones on the ears of the man standing behind me, and he was like, ‘Wow!’ It was as if he was digging a concert. He took them off and said, ‘So are there a lot of people in the States who appreciate cricket songs?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he got so upset that he pulled away, ‘Those stupid Americans, they have even better crickets than we do, and they don’t appreciate them?!”

Some insect sounds are designed to be loud, to grab attention, to predominate.  The author describes the sound generated by the tiny lesser water boatman bug as “99 decibels in volume, louder than a jackhammer 50 feet away, a freight train whizzing by, or a symphony orchestra from the front row. How can such a noise be possible? The boatman makes it by rubbing its own penis against its body. Readers, please don’t try this at home, even above water. You cannot do better than this little-known water bug, more often heard than seen.”

This is a rarity in the natural world, though.  Nature-sound recordist Bernie Krause has come to the conclusion that, if one listens closely to insects in their environment, one will eventually be able to hear the seeming jumble and chaos of sound as something more akin to a musical score, with each animal and insect occupying its own sound space.  Rothenberg relates Krause’s theory that “creatures in nature divide up the acoustic spectra as a result of natural selection and make their sounds in an acoustic niche, akin to an ecological niche, so their noises will be heard and they won’t get in each other’s way.”

How do, and how can, humans fit into this “insectal” acoustic niche? Rothenberg spends a good part of the second half of the book exploring composers and musicians who work with insect sounds. Some use the sounds as inspiration for music played on standard instruments. Others sample and manipulate recorded insect sound, creating works of their own, sometimes in concert with computer and/or acoustically generated sounds and sometimes unadorned.

The author, being a clarinetist, can’t resist doing this himself: “My method, as always, is not to peacefully listen, but to insist on joining in. Arrogant like most humans, I want to believe my own music can matter as a tiny line amid these ancient tones.”  The result is a CD composed of sampled sounds of cicadas, treehoppers, the above-mentioned water boatman, and other insects in tandem with Rothenberg and guest human musicians.  Out of the studio, he joins an especially large and loud emerging cicada brood in Illinois, where he must resort to the louder-than-clarinet saxophone to be heard among the cicada symphony.  When the cicadas crawling in his hair and up his shirt become too much, he and his companion gather up a number of cicadas to bring to a performance he is to give that evening.

To the small, but inquisitive, crowd he both introduces the performance and sums up his vision:

 “The sounds of insects are not usually associated with music, but most of the time we think of the annoying buzz of flies, the whine of mosquitoes about to bite us, or the nibbling of termites slowly eating our houses into dust. But this cicada sound is different. It is the accumulation of long calls of phaaaaroooah all at once into a continuous high tone, plus the surges and waves of two other species. It’s easy to hear it all as a great wash of static, a white noise covering over all music.  Yet noise is a part of all music. Pure tones are just shadows of music, machine creations, ideas abstracted from the mess and unevenness of the real world. We need noise to make music, we need uncertainty in order to survive. And with that in mind we have brought a few of these insect musicians along to join us. Charles…can you release the band?”

Bug Music Book
Author, David Rothenberg
Bug Music CD (including audio excerpts)