We used to be, generally, a more musical species. The love of music has always been strong, but before the advent of recording technology, we had to make it ourselves if we wanted to scratch that itch so core to our emotional being. Consequently, nearly everybody did.
If they didn't play an instrument, they took part in sing-a-longs, hootenanies, drinking songs, marching call and returns, choirs, rounds and hymns. Recording artists changed that by creating a division amongst who was supposed to sing or make music and who wasn't. Singing at a bar become an embarrassment rather than a tradition. An acoustic guitar around a campfire became a go-to punchline. Those lacking a recording contract kept it to theoretically private places like the car, or the shower, and got all manner of embarrassed if they were caught with their tunes out.
Luckily, karaoke came along and changed all that. Now, I love karaoke in a stupid ridiculous way. To me, it's the Athenian democracy of entertainment; everyone gets the same backing track, and then it's on them to do something with it. Most don't. But for those who do, there's that magical moment when the 250-pound bald man singing Whitney Houston busts a knee-slide across the floor, or Stephen Hawking performs "Mr. Roboto," it's pure magic, the kind of emotional awakening you feel lucky to have experienced before you die.
That's why I'm starting a multi-part series on karaoke joints in Boise, which I hope will not only become the city's most comprehensive guide for aficionados, but will also play watchdog on venues. Those with sham efforts, anemic song catalogs and poor performance spaces or equipment should get BS called on them. And those that do it right will get the accolades they deserve.
To start things out, let's discuss Sunday night karaoke at Liquid, an excellent case study in wasted potential.
I was attracted to Liquid's karaoke night for two reasons: a central location and karaoke directly following Last Call Trivia. If done properly, the one-two punch of trivia and karaoke could be the demise of my paycheck nearly every week. Sadly, this was not the case.
There was no song book at Liquid. The KJ instructed the bar to ask about songs she might have, assuring me that the catalog was big enough that there would be more yes's than no's. Still, it took seven tries to find a song. And they weren't obscure tracks. There was no "Rebel Yell," no "Just a Gigalo," no "Oh Darling," no "Fat Bottomed Girls," no" I'd Do Anything for Love But I Won't Do That." Eventually we found a cheap keyboard version of "We Built This City on Rock and Roll," by Starship. But the others were marquis tracks even the KJ seemed surprised they didn't have.
Additionally, because of whatever computer system was used, songs couldn't be searched for while someone else was singing, meaning that without a book as reference, the whole process was slowed down immensely, and if your song wasn't present—which was highly likely—you would have to get bumped in order to move things along.
But the real problem with that system, was that it naturally pushed singers towards the biggest hits, the most over-performed played out bores rather than rediscovering or interpreting lost gems; the" Sweet Caroline"'s rather than "The Sweet."
This is not to say it was all bad. The stage and space are good. And the microphone and sound system are of above average quality for a karaoke bar, likely because Liquid is also a live performance venue. Sadly however, those beautiful stage monitors were off, making it difficult to hear yourself and punishing the audience in the process.
Perhaps the best thing about Liquid, what could make it rule, was the interpretive freedom allowed. One singer replaced, "you can dance," in "The Safety Dance," with "shit your pants." While it might not have been the best direction to take the song, both the bartenders and the KJ were fine with it, as they were when I brought my drink with me to stage. That sort of policy is what can make for great karaoke, and is much preferable to venues that won't even let you bring your drink to the mic, let alone bust some David Lee Roth high kicks in assless chaps.
But no matter how much potential Liquid's karaoke night has, it is unrealized. And until it is, I'll be singing elsewhere.