It’s probably best to admit this straight away: I have a love/hate relationship with karaoke. Deep in my heart of hearts, I know it’s lame, moderately annoying, and a good reminder of why the 90’s were so embarrassing to the human race. But even so, there’s something about having a live audience that’s weirdly compelling to me, even if that audience is ostensibly more interested in their half-price pitchers of Schlitz than in my stirring rendition of John Denver. I don’t go out of my way to seek it out, but if karaoke happens to be at the bar where I’m drinking, you can bet I’ll put in for a song or two.
Why do I do this? Why do I crave attention this badly, even when I know it amounts to little more than snickering at my drunken capering? Maybe it’s not entirely my fault. Over the course of my life, karaoke has followed me around like a bad case of jock itch, and if you can’t beat something, you might as well embrace it (karaoke, that is, not jock itch). My first encounter occurred down in Mexico. I was 8 years old at the time, and on vacation with my parents. I can’t remember too much about this trip, and I’m guessing that’s a common enough thing when it comes to Mexican vacations.
I do, however, remember winning a bottle of tequila at some game on the resort, and the game operator was at least reluctant, although not entirely unwilling, to bestow a seemingly unescorted 8-year-old with said bottle of tequila. That was cool. Also, there was a boat ride one night with karaoke. I didn’t participate, but even back then, I saw the appeal. Hearing senior citizens butcher the spicy Latin rhythms did nothing to dissuade me. I had to have my audience…
…Skip ahead a few years. It’s the weekend of my birthday, and my mom, who’s a teacher, borrows a karaoke machine from her school for the weekend. I was so excited, I forgot to ask what kind of crazy-ass school puts karaoke on its curriculum. Back in those days, technology wasn’t that sophisticated, and to play music, you had to insert these adorable little rectangles called “cassettes.” Of course, karaoke cassettes contained only background music, and you didn’t even get a printout of the lyrics you were supposed to be singing. That made karaoke a whole lot more challenging than it has any right to be. The only karaoke cassette that came with the unit (at least, the only one I recognized) was Roy Orbison’s single, “Pretty Woman.” Naturally, I knew this song from the eponymous movie, in which Julia Roberts plays a hooker with a heart of gold and a set of knockers to match. But again, I remind you…no lyrics sheet. That was okay though, because I spent the better part of the weekend making up my own:
“Pretty woman…walking down the street,
Pretty woman…um…eating all the meat.
I don’t believe you…you’re not the truth…
Something something…John Wilkes Booth…”
I still didn’t have my audience, but I was honing my skills. Soon I’d hit the big time.
High school passed uneventfully, then college. I started coming into my own, socially. Perhaps more importantly, I started to develop a more sophisticated taste in music. By which I mean, I had a phase where I listened to utter crap, like all university students. Oh, don’t bother denying it. So, with some newfound friends by my side and some awful music in my heart, we went to karaoke night at a local bar where I elected to sing (and I shit you not) “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by MeatLoaf. Not only had I chosen a song positively dripping with cheese, it was something like 17 minutes long and a duet to boot! Somehow, I dragged a girl up on stage with me, and I think we did a pretty good job. Especially during the Phil Rizzuto, baseball commentary-as-analogy-for-sexual-encounter part. Well, I didn’t even get to firstbase that night, but in terms of karaoke, I’d hit a home run. I handled all the difficult parts like a pro. And that was a weird way to feel, because as far as I know, there is no professional karaoke. And if you think there should be, then obviously, you haven’t been watching goddamn American Idol.
There were a few more karaoke experiences during college, all of which whet my appetite for more. I remember going once with my old roommate and one of his friends. Between the two of them, they had a communicative ability slightly better than your average fichus plant. Nevertheless, they did a rendition of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” that had me applauding. Don’t read too much into that, however. I also applaud the “athletes” at the Special Olympics.
I learned the importance of song selection. Bar goers aren’t music critics and most are pretty forgiving, but I’m pretty sure there’s a line you don’t want to cross. The dude who sang “Eye of the Tiger” leapt over the line. That’s a good example of a song that has some retro appeal, and sounds good in your head, but much less so coming out of your mouth. I mean, I liked it when Rocky punched Mr. T and everything, but it’s still a shitty song.
College came and went. Then I went to Japan, the birthplace and mecca of karaoke. My very first night there, the mayor of my little town, a gigantic, sweaty ex-judo star, belted out a version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” that made me want to hide under the table. At least the drinks were free, which, as you know, is a powerful incentive to refrain from laughing, hard though it may be.
The word “karaoke” itself is a little blend of the Japanese word for “empty,” and a partially-transliterated version of the word “orchestra.” So, “empty orchestra.” As titles for activities go, this is not nearly as helpful as it sounds. They might just as well have named it “prawn cracker schoolgirl panties party” if they wanted the activity to catch on. But in spite of the name, the popularity of the activity skyrocketed, mostly among the highly-coveted “sad, henpecked, drunken salaryman stereotype” demographic. These days, every single bar in Japan is equipped with karaoke, and may I eat poisonous blowfish if I’m lying. It’s just that inescapable. And this problem is compounded if you happen to be the only English-speaking Caucasian male in a 10 mile radius. Because those fuckers, bless them, want nothing more than to hear you sing karaoke. More often than not, however, the only two non-Japanese musicians represented in a small-town Japanese bar will be the Beatles, and for some reason, the Carpenters. Yeah. The motherfucking Carpenters.
“Welcome to Japan, suspicious gaijin from afar! Can you use chopsticks? Aha! I thought not. Please sing karaoke while these creepy drunken gentleman clap along for your benefit. You say you are unfamiliar with the Carpenters? Unthinkable! Fortunately, you may sing ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon. What do you mean, ‘not upbeat’? Get singing, barbarian!”
(By the way, it’s always “Imagine,” by John Lennon. A nice song and all, but kind of depressing after the ninth or tenth time. Sometimes, to amuse myself, I would sing it entirely with a JFK accent. Or as Billy Bob Thornton’s character from Sling Blade. I don’t think the Japanese ever noticed.)
But even more than they want you to sing, they want you to hear them sing. Maybe it has something to do with World War II or ninjas, I’m not certain. But you betterprepare yourself for a long night of mournful, atonal dirges. It’s enough to make you want to stab your eardrums with a Hello Kitty Q-Tip.
Of course, not all karaoke in Japan is that bad, just the sort enforced by the locals. But there was nothing stopping me and some friends from renting out a karaoke box, away from the prying eyes of curious locals, where we could drink and sing our fool heads off the way we wanted to. These boxes, really little rooms equipped with anything and everything karaoke-related, generally had a better selection of western artists. I soon learned that repetitive songs are no good. Don’t believe me? Try singing Europe’s “Final Countdown.” By the end of the song, you’re just shrieking the words “It’s the Final Countdown!” with progressively more intensity.
And it was in one of these boxes that I invented a game that will one day take the world by storm. It was called “Revenge Karaoke.” The premise is simple: One person is designated to start, and he/she picks a song for someone else in the room to sing. That person MUST sing it, and cannot know what song it will be until it actually appears. Afterwards, the singer gets to choose a song for someone else to sing, and so on. Eventually, little grudges will develop, and that makes the game interesting. Trust me, after I made this tough Latino dude sing “My Heart Will Go On,” he was pretty keen on revenge, but all he could come up with for me was “Karma Chameleon.” I think I got the best of that exchange. Actually, all he really knew how to sing was “La Bamba,” so just about anything I picked was enough to cause discomfort. Oh yeah, Revenge Karaoke has one more rule: No Rick Astley, under any circumstances.
In any case, I returned home, and, at the risk of sounding stupid, I was karaoke as fuck. I couldn’t wait to put all my damn karaoke experience to use in front of an audience who would understand the lyrics. I traveled to the Dominican Republic, where one of the nightly entertainment choices was a karaoke contest. Well, after dancing around the stage to the strains of the J. Geils Band’s “Centrefold,” I found myself ahead 2 bottles of cheap local rum. Never mind that my only competition was elderly German women; I had defended my karaoke honor, and I was pumped about it.
More karaoke outings, more good performances, more applause. I stumbled across another competition in Vegas, where I was intent on repeating the earlier “Centrefold” success I had enjoyed. However, the music came on, and no lyrics were forthcoming. Good thing that song is full of “Na na na na na” sequences. Even so, I felt like I tanked. I realized that my Semitic good looks and energetic stage presence could only get me so far.
I also started to realize that there were guys who must be regulars for karaoke night, because the MC seemed to know them, and what they planned to sing in advance. I imagine that these are the same types of people who script out and perform hilarious answering machine messages, despite the fact that nobody ever calls them. I started to wonder if I was on a similar path, and the thought disturbed me.
Things went from bad to worse. Some friends and I decided to do a “Bad Bar” Pub Crawl, hitting every disgusting and desolate dive in our district, decked out in our most dreadful duds. In other words, we bought crazy outfits and got drunk. In that order, I should add. Needless, to say, we caught a lot of funny looks, but none more so than from the patrons of the biker bar we entered, looking for all the world like 4 gay clowns escaped from the circus. Revenge Karaoke made a brief comeback, as I was forced to sing Rod Stewart’s “If Ya Think I’m Sexy,” which was not without its charms. But since my friends weren’t willing to tempt fate in this rough bar, it really wasn’t “Revenge Karaoke” so much as “Make Dave Sing a Gay Song and Laugh at Him.” Karaoke had taken a sour turn.
Months later, I did get a buddy to sing James Brown’s “Sex Machine” with me, on the promise that the only words he would have to utter would be “Get on up.” Well, he gave it the old college try, but sang his “Get on up’s” with all the emotion of Al Gore on Prozac. Which is not really the way to go in a James Brown song. Nevertheless, I decided to attempt an encore, where I did Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Big mistake. I can now safely add “vocal range” to the already-lengthy list of things I don’t have in common with Freddy Mercury. Seriously, I sang so out-of-key that I thought we might be asked to leave. If not for my performance, then for my friends’ rank body odor.
Since then, I haven’t really done any karaoke, and I think the world might be a better place for it. I’ve come to the simple realization that as much as I like attention, trying to get it through karaoke is like being the guy at the party who actually wears the lampshade as a hat. It’s tragically pathetic, and everyone knows it, including yourself. I don’t want to be that guy. The only thing I need for a good night out is precious booze and good company. I’ll give the karaoke a miss from now on. However, I want you to know that I’m still available for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.
Essential New Word of the Week:
larly \‘larli\ adj: Flimsy, esp. pertaining to neck muscles. This word came about as the result of some unfortunate punctuation. The line should have read “particularly in the neck muscles.” But the “particu-” part got cut off, and my friends and I were forced to conclude that the subject had “larly” neck muscles, which we took to mean weak. No, I don’t remember the context of the sentence. But if it makes you feel better, I think David Schwimmer is probably a guy with larly neck muscles.
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