Who Created Karaoke?

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On Wednesday night, Team Floss went karaoking. After Mangesh sang “I Believe I Can Fly,” Jessanne did her best Madonna impersonation while belting out “Like a Prayer,” and Winslow and I channeled The Lonely Island to perform “I’m On A Boat,” we wondered—just how did this craze get started?

Despite what you may have heard, karaoke isn’t Japanese for tone deaf. The word is a portmanteau of the Japanese kara, or empty, and oke, the shortened form of okesutora, or orchestra. The first machines were created by a musician named Daisuke Inoue in 1971. At the time, Inoue was living in Kobe and playing drums in a band that would accompany bar patrons when they wanted to sing. He told a reporter for The Guardian that he was a terrible musician, so he created a machine to play for him when he didn’t want to (or couldn’t). He had 11 machines constructed and leased them to local businesses.

By the ‘80s, karaoke was all over Japan. According to Forbes, America’s first karaoke bar opened in Los Angeles in 1982. By 2003—the first year of the Karaoke World Championships, which had participants from seven countries—karaoke had become a worldwide phenomenon.

Inoue never patented the karaoke machine, and, according to NPR, he earned almost no money from his invention. “I could have patented it but at the time I didn't have any idea,” he told The Guardian. “I just wanted to help some local artists in a local band so they could do some business." (A Filipino named Roberto del Rosario patented the Karaoke Sing Along System in 1975.) But what Inoue lacks in wealth, he’s made up in glory: In 1999, Time named him one of the most influential Asians of the century, and in 2004, he received the Ig Nobel Peace Prize, for providing—in the words of master of ceremonies Marc Abrahams—“an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.”

In his acceptance speech, Inoue said that “One time I had a dream to teach people to sing, so I invented karaoke. I didn't know it would be the start of something big. Now more than ever, I want to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.” He received the longest standing ovation the Ig Nobels had ever seen.