It’s a scene familiar to sing-along enthusiasts around the world.
Every night, in karaoke bars spanning from Bangkok to Brooklyn, a pair of lovebirds will invariably hit the stage, grab their mics and begin bopping their heads in semi-awkward unison as a gentle burst of strings and guitars glides over the speakers. As the opening verse kicks in and the duo begins to sing, it becomes clear to everyone in the room that, for the next four minutes or so, we’ll all be “Islands in the Stream”:
Baby, when I met you, there was peace unknown
I set out to get you with a fine-tooth comb...
When Kenny Rogers died Friday at the age of 81, he left behind a remarkably expansive pop-culture legacy, which included chart-topping albums, hit TV Westerns and a beloved fast-food chicken chain. But one of Rogers’ less-discussed feats is the decades-long karaoke success of “Islands in the Stream,” his smash 1983 duet with Dolly Parton.
Like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” it’s a song every regular karaoke-goer has been compelled to perform (or forced to endure) during their career. And while there are several equally popular contenders for best karaoke duet of all time — ranging from “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” to “Shallow” — none are as defiantly sincere, nor as ah-ha accessible, as “Islands in the Stream.”
It’s not hard to understand why people have been singing “Islands in the Stream” to one another for nearly 40 years: After all, it’s a near-perfect specimen of sturdily constructed soft-rock, co-written by Bee Gees members Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb just a few years after the success of “Saturday Night Fever” (Barry Gibb, who also produced the tune, even recorded a leaner, airier demo version of the song that circulated among fans for years). And though some of the brothers Gibb’s lyrics are a bit byzantine (“there was a peace unknown”?), they’re connected by a stream of gorgeous melodies.
Still, Rogers initially felt stranded during the recording of “Islands,” spending four days trying to perfect his own version, with little success. “I finally said, ‘Barry, I don’t even like this song anymore,’” Rogers told People in 2017. “And he said, ‘You know what we need? We need Dolly Parton.’” After Rogers convinced his fellow pop-country legend to join him in the studio, “the song was never the same,” he recalled. “It took on a personality of its own.”
The response to “Islands” was immediate. Released on Rogers’ 1983 album “Eyes That See in the Dark,” the song quickly hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, knocking out Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (which itself would go on to become a karaoke standard in the years to come). Country and pop stations alike put the song in seemingly perpetual rotation, and 15 years after its release, “Islands” returned for a cameo appearance on the charts via “Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are),” the 1998 hit from Fugee member Pras that sampled Rogers’ tune for its chorus.
But not every chart-topping, genre-crossing hit becomes a karaoke hit. What’s helped make “Islands” such a go-to public duet is its sheer frankness — the way both vocalists declare their love in such unequivocal, unapologetic ways:
And we rely on each other, ah-ha
from one lover to another, ah-ha
For married karaoke couples of a certain age, performing “Islands in the Stream” together is akin to making a very public renewal of their vows. For younger singers, even a semi-ironic duet of “Islands” allows them to express and confront the kind of heavy sentiment — “I can’t live without you if the love was gone” — that are often easier to sing than to say aloud. It’s a song you can perform to one another with a kiss or a wink — and only you and your partner will know what you’re really feeling.
Of course, you don’t need to be in love to perform “Islands in the Stream” at karaoke — though if not, you might want to prepare for some slight awkwardness (I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a pair of karaoke-jesters tipsily take on the song as a joke, only to lose their cool upon realizing they’d forgotten the song’s bluntest lyric: “making love with each other, ah-ha”).
Nor do you have to be a great singer: Though Parton’s vocals on “Island” range from subdued to sublime, Rogers’ straight-shooting, deceptively casual-seeming approach on “Islands” make it seem like a song that even us amateurs can replicate.
That may be why, as soon as we’re all allowed to congregate and sing together again, “Islands in the Stream” will immediately ring out at karaoke joints worldwide: It’s a song that encourages us to be in harmony, both musically and emotionally.
And even if we’re doing so in a tiny room full of strangers, watching our promises of devotion spill across the bottom of a beer-splattered TV monitor — well, how can we be wrong?
Brian Raftery is a journalist and author of “Best. Movie. Year. Ever: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen” and “Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life.”