Laser Karaoke

Laser Karaoke: the Three-minute Theatre of Life

The 20th century revolution in music technology was an unparalleled cultural leveler. Anyone who could afford an electric guitar acquired the power to create earth shaking sounds. Advances in equipment and studio techniques, along with genres like hip hop, banished the need for players to even learn an instrument, let alone know how to sing. But of all the breakthroughs to have made music the most ‘popular’ of arts, the biggest is surely karaoke.

It was 1971. Jim Morrison died and Led Zeppelin released ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ John Lennon gave the world ‘Imagine.’ Few could have predicted that a humble technology, born that same year in a corner of Osaka, would have a far greater impact than any of these milestones.

Karaoke spread in the 1970s via the now-extinct 8-track cartridge, on which hit songs stripped of their vocal tracks enabled would-be stars to croon or belt out the words for themselves (the characters for karaoke read ‘empty orchestra’).

The advent of the Laserdisc in 1982 set the industry alight, as songs could now be played on screen as short films, with subtitles of the lyrics. The disc was 30cm in diameter, the same as an LP record, and although first commercialised in the USA in 1978, the format was developed chiefly by Japanese firm Pioneer, which registered the name Laserdisc.

The Laserdisc remains superior in audio and visual quality to today’s DVD due to its huge capacity to store uncompressed data, along with masses of information. And despite fierce competition with rival JVC and its Video High Density (VHD) format, which also boasted high capacity, Pioneer won, making Laserdisc the standard in Japan for both movie and karaoke software. The victory came despite Pioneer being the only Laserdisc maker, and JVC having 13 other manufacturers on side.

The laser revolution freed people from having to read lyrics from a card or songbook, as they had been forced to do with tape-based karaoke. Singers could entirely lose themselves in the on-screen fantasies, and fine tune their performances along with the images and music. When you sang to laser karaoke, you became the sole protagonist in your own world of song.

Laser’s golden age was short-lived: the introduction in 1992 of cable karaoke, which delivers songs on demand in the manner of cable TV, quickly supplanted laser in karaoke bars and parlours. Cable’s advantages include its limitless catalogues and ease of management. Laserdisc production itself continued sparingly for in-home karaoke and some movies, but was discontinued by 2007. Not a single company now produces a player.

These days, when people talk about karaoke, no one is referring to laser, which is forgotten, they invariably mean cable. But laser’s disappearance has taken something precious with it: the extraordinary canon of dedicated video clips produced specifically for the discs. Request a tune at a karaoke parlor today and you may get some kind of generic, ‘atmospheric’ accompanying video that has nothing to do with the harmonies or stories in your heart. And no one thinks anything’s amiss, even though performing this way is a distinctly inferior experience.

With its images and soundtracks unique to each three-minute journey, laser karaoke was its own visual language. In no more than about a decade, tens of thousands of short films were produced for tens of thousands of tunes; countless thousands of locations and actors’ performances were recorded; all of this has been so completely discarded that no-one even bothers to mention it now. The laser adventure inspired the documentation of precious landscapes all over Japan that have since been bulldozed over, but when it comes to preserving such archives, neither libraries nor film centres are remotely interested. Laser karaoke is a sea of our lost memories.