Rock critic Rob Sheffield has profiled dozens—probably hundreds—of bands for Rolling Stone. He's followed around Aerosmith and gone out for Thai food with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and ventured backstage at Rocklahoma.
But he's the first to admit his books tend to return to the same themes over and over again.
"Music and girls—it's what I'm obsessed with writing about," he explained in a phone conversation with The Atlantic Wire. "On a given day, I write about the relationships that are essential to my life, and for some reason I help myself understand deep relationships better through music. [Music] is all I have to sort of help me make sense of these human mysteries."
As Sheffield has shown, it can be an incisive tool. Those dual obsessions formed the basis for his first book, 2007's Love Is a Mixtape, the wrenching memoir-through-mixtapes story of his courtship and marriage to Renée Crist, a fellow DJ at the University of Virginia, and her eventual death from a sudden pulmonary embolism. Then came Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, which—as its title well indicates—brought things back to the '80s by way of coming-of-age vignettes.
He isn't the first to treat pop music like a serious cultural artifact. But in Sheffield's hands, pop music is more than an object of cultural consumption—it becomes the language through which to navigate and negotiate his most intimate moments, a feeling familiar to anyone who's labored over a romantic mixtape or slogged worn copies of High Fidelity around from apartment to apartment.
The latest, Turn Around Bright Eyes, brings Sheffield back to the present and takes a happier narrative as its subject. Merging memoir with a cultural history of karaoke, it's the story of how Sheffield moved to New York City in the early 2000s and fell in love, as told through—yes—his unbridled passion for karaoke bars, which he shares with his wife, Ally. Love, as Sheffield relates in the book, is about "building a shared language out of the things that fire up your blood." For him and Ally, karaoke is that language, one that yanks him out of his introverted music-geek disposition and transforms him into "the sleaziest villain you could ever encounter in any Lifetime movie."
The only problem—which, in karaoke world, is actually not even remotely a problem—is that Sheffield can't sing.
"I have no musical talent," he told The Wire. "All my efforts to sing or play an instrument have been somewhat traumatizing—not so much for me as traumatizing for the musicians trying to teach me stuff. Sometimes they'll let me sit in and it's usually regretted on their part."
Karaoke, then, is the great equalizer.
"Karaoke is something where anybody can participate in music even with no talent whatsoever," he raved. "The karaoke worldview, the whole karaoke cosmology—it changes perspective on a lot of things. And love is one of them."
And while Turn Around Bright Eyes is primarily the story of Sheffield's own adult life through karaoke anecdotes, it also offers a patchwork of those of the author's friends and acquaintances and also complete strangers, who all, somehow, become the same in the reflected glow of the lyrics screen. "The whole time I was writing, I was telling people about it and they would tell me their karaoke stories," Sheffield recalled. "Although it might seem cheesy and cheap to a lot of people, it can still get to the heart of really fundamental human mysteries. Even the mystery of standing up in front of a group of strangers and none of us know each other, but while we're there we clap for each other and treat each other like rock stars. That's really fucking bizarre!"
There are then the various karaoke-themed watering holes where the writer's adventures take place, in New York and Japan (the birthplace of the hobby) and Charlottesville, Va., and South Carolina.
Sheffield most frequently returns to Sing Sing, his haven on Avenue A in the East Village, with a private room "obviously decorated by a color-blind stripper in 1982." It's his favorite. "It's for hardcore karaoke fans who just really want to sing until their tonsils catch fire," Sheffield told me, pointing out that it has not one or two but three Frankie Goes To Hollywood tracks, including little-known ballad "The Power of Love." ("I only tried it once and my friends were like, 'Don't do that again.'")
But he hasn't actually gotten around to informing the various bars' proprietors about his new book.
"I keep thinking, will they like the book or will they be like, 'Oh my god, that's the douchebag who comes here and sings Van Halen,'" he admitted. "That sort of sensation hits you at a karaoke bar and you're like, 'I should probably not go back to this place for a few weeks."