Book reviews: Sheffield's autobiographical tale tells of karaoke dreams

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There's a scene in the movie "High Fidelity" (based on a novel by Nick Hornsby), where the John Cusack character reorganizes his record collection, not alphabetically or chronologically, but autobiographically.

Any hard-core music fan, whether he or she uses this system, understands exactly what this means. For a lot of people, being a music fan involves much more than just listening to songs or having a favorite band. It is a way of organizing and bookmarking the course of a life.


By Rob Sheffield
It Books ($25.99).

"Music isn't an accessory to a lifestyle -- it's part of life," says Rob Sheffield. "It's not a youthful phase you go through." Mr. Sheffield's first book, "Love Is a Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time," was his very personal story of meeting a girl, falling in love, getting married and then tragically watching her die, all told through the lens of the music they shared through mixtapes.

It was in turns outrageously funny, deep and insightful, and heartbreaking in its honesty. "Turn Around Bright Eyes" is his follow-up, a tale of healing and finding new love. His discovery of karaoke, where he first meets the woman who will become his new wife, opens a door that allows him to begin to live again after years of grief and sorrow. It is the music of his life, and its performance in the form of karaoke, that provides the soundtrack and the structure of this book.

While the book is very specifically his autobiography and the music he cites are from his own experience, Mr. Sheffield's genius is his ability to make these feel universal. While the songs and artists may differ, everyone who is a fan of music can relate. We all have those songs that define moments of our life.

If the book was just about karaoke or music or the author's life, it would still be worth reading. But it is about so much more than that. These topics are merely the surface jumping off point for discussions of the bigger issues of life, love, relationships and death, all told with humor and penetrating wisdom. Rarely do I find a book that I want to read out loud to everyone around me. Every line feels quotable.

When he compares the three ages of a man's life to the career of Rod Stewart you know it's true. When he says all women are like the Beatles' "White Album," you know exactly what he means.

When his personal grief over losing his wife is overshadowed by the collective grief of 9/11 (he lived in the neighborhood of the Twin Towers), we feel it because none of us knew how to process the loss of things great and small.

He talks about a rare record he didn't buy from a store in the basement of the Towers two days before the attacks. In the grand scheme of what was lost that day this seems minor, but in Mr. Sheffield's hands it becomes symbolic of everything, every moment, that is now gone.

The secret of the success of karaoke, he believes, is that "we can be whoever we want." It has transformative powers. In pretending to be rock stars we take the spotlight and "somehow end up as our most sincere version of ourselves."

This is a truth that theater and the theory of the persona in Jungian psychology are well aware of. By wearing a mask and a costume, even metaphorically, we are able to be more real.

For this reason Mr. Sheffield sees David Bowie as the patron saint of karaoke. Bowie became a rock star by pretending to be one. At a time when he was on his way to becoming a forgotten one-hit wonder Bowie slipped on the costume of Ziggy Stardust, grabbed the spotlight and told the world he was a star. He told them often enough and forcefully enough that the world believed him.

That's the underlying metaphor of karaoke for Mr. Sheffield. Whether you ever participate in karaoke or not, in life you should grab the mic. Sing a song. Take the spotlight, even if it's for a moment, because those moments pass and then they are gone forever.

To paraphrase another Bowie song, be a hero, just for one day, because one day leads to another and eventually becomes a life.


Wayne Wise is a freelance writer and novelist living in Lawrenceville (


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