Once upon a time I was falling apart. Now I'm always falling in love.
Pick up the microphone.
When Rob Sheffield moved to New York City in the summer of 2001, he was a young widower trying to start a new life in a new town. Behind, in the past, was his life as a happily married rock critic, with a wife he adored, and a massive collection of mix tapes that captured their life together. And then, in a flash, all he had left were the tapes.
Beyoncé , Bowie, Bon Jovi, Benatar . . .
One night, some friends dragged him to a karaoke bar in the West Village. A night out was a rare occasion for Rob back then.
Somehow, that night in a karaoke bar turned into many nights, in many karaoke bars. Karaoke became a way out, a way to escape the past, a way to be someone else if only for the span of a three-minute song. Discovering the sublime ridiculousness of karaoke, despite the fact that he couldn't carry a tune, he began to find his voice.
And then the unexpected happened. A voice on the radio got Rob's attention. The voice came attached to a woman who was unlike anyone he'd ever met before. A woman who could name every constellation in the sky, and every Depeche Mode B side. A woman who could belt out a mean Bonnie Tyler.
Turn Around Bright Eyes is an emotional journey of hilarity and heartbreak with a karaoke soundtrack. It's a story about finding the courage to move on, clearing your throat, and letting it rip. It's a story about navi- gating your way through adult romance. And it's a story about how songs get tangled up in our deepest emotions, evoking memories of the past while inspiring hope for the future.
When Roger Ebert died, obituary writers cataloged all the wonderful details about his career as a critic, of which there were many. But the quality that came up most often was the one that mattered most: Ebert never lost his connection to the sheer glee of sitting in a dark theater and experiencing a movie that made him feel something. His intellectual relationship to criticism never eroded his emotive, visceral relationship with the art that he loved. This is an incredibly rare quality. And it’s the same attribute that informs everything Rob Sheffield writes. Even if Sheffield were a robot, his writing would be worth reading, simply because he (a.) knows how sentences work and (b.) seems to effortlessly recall every interesting thing about every single song he’s ever heard since kindergarten. He’d still be an excellent music writer if he thought music sucked; the fact that he loves music so sincerely makes him borderline unstoppable. Turn Around Bright Eyes is technically about karaoke (and ostensibly about learning how to romantically recover from the romantically unrecoverable), but it’s actually about what music can give your life -- if you’re willing to give your life to music.
What you realize from Turn Around Bright Eyes – and from its narrative progenitor, Love in a Mix Tape – is not just that Sheffield calibrates his entire existence through popular music. It’s that this calibration is simultaneously reasonable, creative, and profoundly satisfying. This is not a book about how karaoke helped some depressed person escape from reality; this is a book about how karaoke continually allows a happy person to perform his own reality, in public, whenever he so desires. When Sheffield describes how it feels to cover “Ziggy Stardust” in a windowless room, he is only halfway talking about David Bowie; he is mostly talking about himself. When he defines why Neil Diamond is the cornerstone of the karaoke universe, he is defining what he values about culture; when he outlines why he added Rush to his karaoke repertoire, he’s outlining the process of personal growth; when he explains the sensation of singing Bonnie Tyler’s masterwork alongside his wife, he’s explaining things about his marriage that would be impossible to explain otherwise. It might seem crazy, but it works every time. There is no question about life that Rob Sheffield cannot answer through the lyrics of a Top 40 song everyone else forgot to remember. He understands Rod Stewart the way Frederick Exley understood Frank Gifford. He understands made-for-TV Lifetime movies the way Joan Didion understood hippies. He understands Bon Jovi slightly more than the members of Bon Jovi. He understands why life hurts and why life feels good.
There’s a fleeting paragraph in Turn Around Bright Eyes where Sheffield casually mentions that he once went to a therapist who happened to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium. Rob ends up paying her $80 to listen to her talk about a 30-minute concert for 45 minutes. At the end of the session, the therapist wonders if this one-sided conversation was “really necessary,” which makes me suspect she didn’t understand the man she was talking to. By the time you finish this book, you will understand Rob Sheffield better than she did. “I’m a combination of two horrific personality types,” he writes in my favorite chapter. “An encyclopedia-minded data-storage-facility rock geek and a crippling polite firstborn Irish son.” Somehow, Rob seems to assume these are bad qualities, which makes me wonder if he’s a little confused himself. Those are the best qualities any rock writer can possess. I can’t think of a more likable, more stable, or more self-assured narrator than this particular person. Every sentence makes sense, including the ones that completely surprised me.
You know, I must be honest: karaoke scares me. It’s my greatest phobia. I could speak in front of 20,000 people, but I couldn’t sing in front of two. I’m a little ashamed of this fact, and there’s nothing I can do about it. But reading this book makes me feel like that fear doesn’t exist. It makes me feel like I just drunkenly sang “Whole Lotta Love” and totally killed it. I’m not even sure what that means.
What does it mean when a book makes you feel like you can sing?
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