At the Christmas party, things suddenly go downhill when out of nowhere appears a black box and a microphone.

You've been whisked off by your company for a lavish Christmas party. Surprisingly, your workmates have scrubbed up well, the food is decent and the bar is free, but things suddenly go downhill when out of nowhere appears a black box and a microphone. It's the karaoke machine.

Being forced by peer pressure to stand on stage and perform 'My Way' must surely be one of life's ultimate humiliations. It's the kind of situation any self-respecting person would run from. Not your average Japanese businessman, however. According to rumour, karaoke started in a quiet bar in Kobe, western Japan, in 1971, when the regular guitarist failed to appear one night and the owner got together some accompaniment tapes for the bar clientele to sing to instead.

The craze blossomed, and in 2002 raked in $7 billion on its home turf, where it's common for rural folk to lock themselves in a soundproof portable booth and sing to their hearts' content. Now, it's just as common to find the dreaded karaoke machine in your local pub, though the trend has lost something in translation.

What began as a relatively upmarket pursuit for respectable middle managers in Japan has become a rather more downmarket affair over here, particularly loved by booze-fuelled ladettes, whose ditty of preference is 'I Will Survive'. But the phenomenon works. Why? Because people like having a good time, and the more opportunity there is to laugh at a friend or workmate, the better.

While those fat ladies keep singing, it ain't over by a long way.

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