Stand up if you hate karaoke!

A government survey to find Britain's greatest gadgets, to mark the 40th anniversary of the smoke alarm, has identified the karaoke machine as the worst gadget. Chris Green charts its rise from Japanese curiosity to living-room fixture
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The Independent Online

Anyone who has ever entered their local pub looking for a quiet pint, only to be driven out of by a group of inebriated middle-aged divorcees crowded around a microphone wailing the approximate tune of "I Will Survive", would surely testify that the karaoke machine is one of the most infernal devices ever devised by humans.

Now, the public's silent hatred has gained official recognition. The humble singalong box, with its giant library of backing tracks and relentless autocue, has been crowned as the gadget the British most wish had never been invented. A government survey asked more than 2,500 adults to name the gadgets they regarded as the most important as well as the most irritating. Almost a quarter said that they wished the karaoke machine had never seen the light of day, with other creations including 24-hour sports channels, computer games consoles and mobile phones also topping the list of anathema. Meanwhile, the smoke alarm was voted the most important gadget of the last four decades.

Invented in 1971 by a Japanese musician called Inoue Daisuke, karaoke – which means "empty orchestra" – gained immense popularity in Asia before spreading to the rest of the world in the 1980s. Daisuke never patented his invention, which he made by combining a car stereo, a coin box and an amplifier, saying that it had simply never occurred to him to call such a product his intellectual property. Estimates suggest he lost out on a potential fortune of $150m.

Karaoke is still a popular pastime in Japan, where establishments known as karaoke boxes attract a regular clientele of businessmen, families and students alike. A collection of small rooms, each with its own monitor and microphones, are arranged around a communal bar and are available for customers to rent space and sing to their heart's content. To the disappointment of those who loathe the machines, this practice of isolating karaoke singers in padded rooms has yet to take off in a big way in the UK.

"Seeing the karaoke machine at the top of that list made me smile," says inventor Kane Kramer, a director of the British Inventors Society credited with the technology behind the iPod. "When people are singing karaoke they are enjoying themselves, but as a member of the audience you are just watching somebody who can't perform – and isn't particularly pleasant to listen to – for as long as you can bear it.

"It is antisocial. You might have 10 people who want to sing some karaoke, which means 150 people have to suffer it. But the crazy thing is that people still do go just to be a spectator at other people's inability to sing. After a short while – unless they're very drunk – they're going to find that listening to performers failing to perform for two hours is not the best way to spend the evening."

The people who brought the karaoke machine to the UK were Ivor Arbiter and his daughter Joanne, whose Arbiter Group is a leading supplier of musical instruments and audio equipment. Mr Arbiter, who died in 2005, started importing the machines after they visited a Japanese trade show in 1987. His daughter was obsessed with becoming a pop star.

Four years later, the pair started manufacturing machines and supplying them to pubs, along with the tapes of backing tracks. Joanne, who was 27 then, is now 48. Although she never made it as a pop singer, she still regards the karaoke machine as wonderful.

When The Independent told her of the karaoke machine's unfortunate title, she said: "It's odd, considering that things like the X Factor have come from it, which is one of the most successful things on telly. It might be irritating in the pub, but it's also given millions of people who didn't know they could sing the opportunity to discover they can.

"When we started, we saw it as a way of providing a backing band for singers who didn't have one. I went to pubs in Manchester and all over the country and heard the most amazing talent. People were packing into the pubs to hear the great people, not the terrible ones, and in some villages the good singers became local celebrities."

She also rejects the idea that karaoke is antisocial, recalling the days when people who would previously have sat in their local pub refusing to talk to anyone would suddenly have something to talk about. "Karaoke takes people out, gets them out of themselves and is a way of letting your hair down," she says. "There have always been two sides to it: the people who sing brilliantly and attract people into venues, and the people who get up in a group when they're drunk and drive everyone mad. People watch programmes like the X Factor for the same reasons, because you've got the idiots and you've got the geniuses; that's what karaoke is all about."

The karaoke machine has other supporters. Rob Law, an inventor whose range of children's suitcases has become a huge hit after being rejected by investors on the BBC programme Dragons' Den, said finishing top of such a list could be taken as a backhanded compliment. "Looking down the list of irritating gadgets, most are devices that have become extremely popular," he says. "If you've created a product that has become so popular that it's become annoying, then you're going to be put down as pretty great inventor."

Mr Law's own invention was intended to cut the annoyances of travelling with young children, but he admitted they would share the karaoke machine's fate as an irritating gadget if every family used them. "Mobile phones are a great device, but because they've become so popular they've also become annoying. I was surprised to see the karaoke machine up there, because my favourite worst invention has always been the automated call centre. It's just awful."

The hate list: Modern monsters

Karaoke machine 22%

24hr sports channel 17%

Video games consoles 12%

Mobile phone 11%

Alarm clock 7%

Hair straighteners 5%

Internet 4%

Personal electronic organiser 2%

MP3 player 2%

Remote control 1%

Karaoke choice: 2008 favourites

1. "Angels" Robbie Williams

2. "Valerie" The Zutons/Amy Winehouse

3. "Dancing Queen" ABBA

4. "Sweet Caroline" Neil Diamond

5. "Kingston Town" UB40

6. "The Wonder of You" Elvis Presley

7. "Black Velvet" Alannah Myles

8. "My Way" Frank Sinatra

9. "Suspicious Minds" Elvis Presley

10. "Waterloo" ABBA

Source: Performing Rights Society

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