If there's one thing we've learned from reality TV, it's that mediocrity sells. From Average Joe's panorama of man-boobs to American Idol's smorgasbord of tone-deaf starlets, the world audience has fallen in love with enthusiastic amateurs (the more grossly enthusiastic, the better). Outlets for their sub-par celebrity abound, but karaoke is perhaps the most internationally loved and belittled. Bad singers singing bad music are easy prey, but there is something deeply humanizing about butchering classic tunes in front of an audience--with or without a cocktail.
Born two decades ago in Kobe, Japan, karaoke has spread to Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia and the United States. Even a little-big city like Boise has at least 30 venues that offer greasy microphones and enough Bette Midler to cry you dry. I've dabbled a bit in my day, and though I once turned down an offer to sing lead in a British rock band (no joke), I was still nervous to test my skills. Due to the recent "talent show" craze and timeless obsession with celebrity, the potential rock-star pool has multiplied and raised the bar from horribly bad to not too bad. Regular people are finding ways to ante up on stage, because in the business of karaoke, it's all about style.
Zipping up Vista in my roller-skate car, I belted out Fiona Apple's "Criminal." Much to my horror, the polished soprano of my choir nerd days had rusted to a throaty, slightly flat second alto. No matter. It was Tuesday night. In this town, you are lucky to find excitement on a Friday (with the exception of Krispy Kreme), and I banked on the fact that the Overland Bar would be more full of smoke than people.
The Overland is one of a few local haunts to offer karaoke seven nights a week (or as they say, "seven fun nites"). Other good spots include Club Savvy's, the Navajo Room, Old Chicago and Quinn's, but my resident experts/dates for the evening assured me that for great service, cozy feel and supportive crowds, it's all about the Overland.
Halfway through the first round of drinks, resident diva and BW bouncer Amy Atkins spotted a wiry man with a handlebar mustache. She called him the "Maestro" and explained that he controlled not only the cutting edge equipment (circa 1982) but also the crucial performance order.
"Rule number one, there is always a 'karaoke guy,' and he's usually a former patron. He'll have the standard collection plus some personal mixes, and he always slips himself into the line-up," she said. An old-school lounge singer and confessed bathroom superstar (complete with hairbrush mike and stuffed animal groupies), Amy has the talent and experience to back up her karaoke habit. Her obscure-cartoon-loving husband, Troy, is a regular spectator, and he provided a rundown of the usual suspects: 1) old men who cycle through Sinatra, the Kingston Trio and Elvis 2) cute rebel girls who rock to alternative chick rants 3) blonde, 30-something working women with black roots who croon '70s ballads after a long day's work and a couple beers (Amy's category) 4) thwarted pop-star types who take themselves too seriously and sound like electric turkey carvers 5) jocks who stuff their hands in their pockets and drone to butt-rock 6) everybody's favorite--the sloppily drunk posse that can't even make "Love Shack" sound like music.
Around 9 p.m., they were all accounted for. I started sweating. What if I bombed? And how was I supposed to choose from over 100 pages of songs by everyone from the Beatles to Barbra Streisand to David Allen Coe? Amy signed up for her old faithful ("Walking After Midnight" by Patsy Cline--"Because you can never go wrong with that one."), and I went for the safe bet/risky combo--"Cowboy Take Me Away" by the Dixie Chicks and "Faith" by George Michael. I figured if sweet didn't work, raunchy would redeem me, and with Amy's encouragement, I submitted my selections under the unassuming cheerleader moniker "Chrissy."
The first group consisted of two attractive young women and a guy who seemed about ready to topple from his stool and taste floor.
"Wanna hold this for me," he slurred, poking me with the microphone.
"Where?" I asked.
"Wherever," he said. Just then, the music kicked on, and the girls began tittering the chorus to--you guessed it--"Love Shack." They were adorably bland, bopping like kindergarteners to a freeze tag record. But their drunken compatriot's obnoxious ad-libbing and lack of karaoke etiquette brought on the wrath of El Maestro.
"Rule number two, never piss off the karaoke guy," Amy whispered.
The rest of the evening was dominated by Shara, a vocal chameleon who artfully mimicked Michael Jackson and Boys to Men. She had her own cheering section, and you could tell from her poise that she was no stage virgin. I wondered aloud how someone so talented could confine herself to this humble sector, and Troy hit the nail on the head.
"They know this is their limit," he said, and Amy echoed that it was better to be spectacular at the neighborhood bar than an above average fish in the big bad pond.
"In the karaoke world, you don't have to have that much talent or a face made for MTV," she said. "Everyone is really supportive, and the more fun you have up there, the more fun it is to watch and listen. It's all about attitude."
"Chrissy, come on up!" Handlebar mustache barked. I waited for her to take the stage. Amy hit me. Oh right, I thought and tried to look relaxed as I perched on the Maestro's stool. Despite my plan to face the audience, I ended up hunched down in a roll-y chair with my back to them. They were accordingly unimpressed. Amy swore I brought tears to her eyes, but most of the patrons talked through my timid solo.
Sitting through the next few songs (most of which were sung by the "Love Shack" trio), I realized my mistake. If I got into it, so would they, and I vowed to put the WHAM! back into George Michael. This time, I warmed up the crowd before I started. I cracked jokes about the sunlit beach/wandering Frenchman visuals on the screen and growled into the tenor of the first line. The whole joint sang along for a bar or two and then sat back while I went nuts. I danced a little, solicited outside help on the chorus and ended with as much of a bang as I could muster. The applause went straight to my malnourished, inner rock star, and it was all I could do not to pirate the mike and sing through all 31 songs by Alabama.
Charged by a good night at the Overland Bar, I was excited to hear about the finals of The Ranch Club's karaoke showdown. The prize was a 1982 station wagon (courtesy of Naylor Towing), and the competitors were dressed to kill. According to karaoke maven/finalist, Alisha Donahue, the winner would be chosen based on style, presentation and skill. She was wearing white, knee-high boots and a go-go dress with black-rimmed glasses, a vintage look that defines her wardrobe both on and offstage. A confessed karaoke junky, she explained that the obsession began at Moscow's Capricorn Club on her 21st birthday.
"I had a couple drinks and then sang "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" by Pat Benatar. I'm a natural performer (I'm a Leo), so karaoke made sense as a hobby. I usually go a couple times a week, but my friends only go if I make them," she said. We sat through a couple really weak performances, one by a woman who breathed dissonantly through Whitney Houston and another by a "real cowboy" who mumbled Garth Brooks into his hat brim. Then Donahue took the stage. Her friends (numbering in the dozens) set the mood by screeching their devotion, and she wasted no time in putting on a show.
Within the first line of "Love Will Keep Us Together," Donahue had the crowd. Her voice was not spectacular, but it was smoky, strong and musical, and she danced around the stage like an old pro. The audience swayed along, and when Donahue finished, they clapped and whooped their appreciation. Remembering the rush after my own performance, I asked how it felt to have so many people caught in her thrall.
"This is a chance to be a star without being on American Idol. You don't have to be that good to have a good time up there--that's why it's fun," she said.
Next came "Cowboy Bob." Wearing bib overalls and tired shoulders, he plunked down on a stool and started romancing the audience with country classics. He was one of many patrons who unwind after work with a beer and few songs. He was so good that it made up for the next contender, a young girl who struggled rigidly, tunelessly through Norah Jones as though she had just been given "onomatopoeia" at a spelling bee. She was so flat and soft I didn't even notice her exit, and suddenly, it was my turn. I had already practiced in the bathroom and pumped myself up, and I took the stage hoping to combine Donahue's spunk with Cowboy Bob's sweet pipes.
My rendition of Garth Brooks' "To Make You Feel My Love" came out slightly less rich than it had in the ladies room, and even though I missed the first line and got lost in the instrumental section (a long, awkward sweep of synthesized rubbish that can leave both singer and singees a bit lost), the crowd was warm and sat in polite silence through the whole ballad before clapping me off the stage. My mouth was dry from nerves, so I went to the bar for some water and a little info. The cute blonde behind the counter said that most people are "water drinkers" on karaoke nights despite the common misconception that only booze can inspire one's inner diva. The man seated next to me, Kurtis, was not one of those people. He claimed to be the resident Elvis impersonator--in a Scottish accent--then ordered two Irish Car Bombs and held one in each hand as he explained the allure of the karaoke stage.
"It's fun for everybody to feel important for a moment. People you don't know are happy for you, clap and care about you, and the applause gets heavier as the night goes on," he said in the same thick brogue. He joked about his own shortcomings as a singer while pointing out that talent is not nearly as important as finesse. "I'm not a very good singer, and I'm never drunk enough not to hear myself sounding like alley cats in love," he said. "I sing because it has a personal meaning for me, and I usually sing to someone who typically isn't here." Sitting there with him, it struck me how different the mood was in this bar than in any of the meat markets on the downtown row. Everyone was in the spirit, and the friendly vibes made me feel like I could have talked to anyone without worrying about looking cool. It's hard to look cool when you're insufferably white and trying to spit out Sir Mix-a-lot's "Baby Got Back" anyway ...
Having gotten wind of my karaoke fieldwork, the BW crew tipped me off to a reunion celebration at Neurolux. Apparently, they used to have "20,000-watt Karaoke" every Saturday night and were anticipating crowds for this one-time break in their regularly scheduled program. I made plans to meet some peeps after 9 p.m., but by 9:30, I was still sitting alone in the empty darkness. A few people sat at the bar, silhouetted by a giant, carnival relic that blinked from the stage. Trying to look purposeful, I flipped through the "menu" and noted that the selection here was more appropriate to the crowd. The usual supply of slutty pop princess songs was spiked with Spandau Ballet and the Rivingtons (maybe "Love Shack" would not be on the bill tonight).
A few more minutes passed and no karaoke--and no BW comrades. So I went to the door and asked the bouncer Ole Cram about the history of Neurolux karaoke. In three years of working the door, he witnessed a lot of talent crossing the stage (including a leather pants-wearer called the "Virginia Creeper"), but things always seemed to turn ugly. Fights broke out in the wee hours, and heckling and fierce competition turned the event from fun to not worth the trouble.
At the mere mention of trouble, managing editor Cynthia Sewell and Mr. Witty Pants himself (Chuck McHenry) walked through the door. Sewell was floored and delighted at being carded, and we made our way to a table with a Sapphire and tonic (extra lime) for her and a Manhattan for me (McHenry had just been to a Borah High School English Department soiree and was not in immediate need). Then came my "karaoke wife" Amy Atkins and her husband Troy, followed by Nancy "dance fever" Spittle and Nick "inexplicably subdued" Collias. Alisha Donahue and company eventually showed up, and I began to understand the magic of karaoke. Not only do you meet really interesting people, you meet them more than once.
This time I was ready. Having watched so many would-be stunners fail to stun, I knew a few maneuvers. I sailed through a comical performance of Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful," making sure to serenade the DJ, apologize for missed high notes and honor McHenry's request for "Joe Cocker arms," which look slightly like a T-rex trying to speak sign language. Donahue blew the roof off with a perfectly choreographed "Proud Mary," inspiring me to bust a move with Spittle and change my last song from Janis Joplin to the diva herself--Madonna. Taking the stage, I stood like a celery stalk with head down and hands pressed together. Right on cue, I looked heavenward and said "God?"
What followed was a blur of belting my heart out to "Like a Prayer" while crawling on my knees and caressing the microphone stand (or so I hear). The crowd went bananas. The floor filled with people (probably under duress, thanks to Spittle), and my exit applause was on par with a busty girl who rapped that naughty song by Nine Inch Nails (you know the one). When I returned to the table, McHenry looked at me and said:
"I thought you were shy."
"So did I," I said.
Walking out that night, I felt strangely alive. My singing was not stellar, not even good, but for a moment, a bar full of people had nothing better to do than watch me work. For some, the thrill is feeling like a star, but the essence of karaoke is self-discovery and indulgence (fully miked and in a spotlight, of course). People walk off the stage a little bit taller, and despite the mob instinct, crowds tend to be generous. So if you want a good laugh at the expense of yourself and others, karaoke for a night. But really go for it, because the more fun you have, the more offers you'll get to sing bad British pop.