The Darker Side of Karaoke

I was initially going to title this, “Karaoke: King of Monsters” because I can’t stop thinking of Godzilla and also I think I’m much funnier than I actually am. Then I was going to title it, “Karrioke” after the woman who won second place in last night’s finals, but you don’t know her so that just…wouldn’t have worked.

The title I chose, though, fits perfectly. I discovered some things about the “mimicking people’s songs” market that have kind of upset me. All it took was a competiton and seven weeks of alcohol.

I love karaoke. Even bad karaoke. I even love karaoke I hate, because even with my ears bleeding and my soul dying with every butchered version of Creep and Hotel California and Rolling in the Deep, the heart of karaoke is beating strong. Even as the steadily expanding group of fucked up rednecks in the corner crow the lyrics to Friends in Low Places in every possible octave and scale, I know the purpose of karaoke is being realized. It’s a beautiful purpose, that.

I performed in a musical back in 2008 called The Boyfriend. It was written by Sandy Wilson and performed originally in the early 1950’s. Set in 1920’s France, it’s a very gay (excessively happy, not homosexual), colorful comedic play about flappers and proper young ladies falling in love. The songs were addictive. The costumes…I had to shave my beard, part my hair to the side and wear a white shirt with red and white striped pants and red suspenders. I haven’t been more ass-kick worthy since I rocked a bowl cut hairdo.

I met a woman in the production (she’s now married, two kids, lounge sings with her husband as a living; it’s awesome) that I ended up sparking a very passionate relationship with. It was something exceptional but, while I don’t want to downplay what we had, she haphazardly introduced me to something that made my life even richer: the karaoke bar.

She lived in an apartment complex connected to a dive bar called the Woodshed Lounge. When I turned 21, I went in a couple times with her. Then I started going in a lot more on my own and with my friends. I didn’t go for the karaoke. I went for the atmosphere. I got to know everyone on the staff: the bartenders, the servers, the karaoke jockeys, the bar backs, the security. I had, uh, relations with some and became incredibly close friends with most. Everyone knew me by name and had my rum and coke ready for me as I walked in the door. It was my Cheers.

I would go there most nights and drink or write or both. I get claustrophobic at home; it’s too quiet. The business of a bar, the caterwauling that bachelorette parties would ejaculate into the mic had a strange focusing effect on me. I seldom sang karaoke unless I was with friends or super drunk, but it happened on occasion. Hey Jude, Wicked Game. If I was sick and my voice dropped, Folsom Prison Blues.

It was a good bar. It was my bar. And I learned while I frequented there the beauty in karaoke.

See, there are incredible singers that go up there and do an amazing job. Trained vocalists, band members, theater performers, naturally gifted folks. Then there are people who go up there and take a song, drag it out into an alley and murder it with the clawed end of a hammer. But the thing they all have in common is that they’re having fun. They’re called up there and maybe they know the song, maybe they don’t, maybe their friend signed them up for something. Maybe they know they suck or think they’re good but either way, doesn’t matter. It’s not about art, it’s about cutting loose and relaxing. It’s about acting a fool and/or putting on a show in front of a large group of people and there’s something pure in that.

Anyway, the Woodshed closed down right after Christmas last year and it bothers me half a year later. It was bad news for me and good news for any bars looking to step their karaoke game up.

A friend of mine in particular was workinf at a much larger local bar with several other bars inside it. He had one section to himself for karaoke that he hosted and he was able to move that from one night a week to five nights. It generated such good reception that he was able to sponsor a karaoke competition that would send one man and one woman down to Nevada to compete nationally.

My friend, knowing I had experience with musical theater and knowing I had on a couple occasions acted as a fill-in judge  at the Woodshed, asked if I would be one of the 2-3 judges for seven weeks in exchange for free drinks. I said yes, of course, because it seemed like fun at the time. And it was.

It was also awful.

Being a judge for seven consecutive weeks is rough. You see a lot of the same contestants come back, trying to get a spot in the finals. Some just aren’t good. Some were vocal coaches and lead singers and seriously, what the fuck am I supposed to say to that? All my fellow judges and I could do was give feedback and tell us what we wanted to see/hear more of, what worked for us and what didn’t and in the end, hope they would utilize that somehow to get better.

Even the worst of them was so much better by the end of the qualifiers. Some of it was our advice (and honestly, some of it was because they ignored it), but a large chunk was just stepping their fucking game up. It was their competition to win or lose and most of them treated it that way.

But guess what? Some people are still just never going to be at that level. Even if they are, consider this: the judges all judge on the same scale (30 points for vocal talent, 20 for stage presence and appearance), but the judges all have different tastes, styles and grading perceptions. Most of the people who got through to the finals I felt deserved it and some I didn’t. I’m sure the other judges felt the same way. But it’s a numbers game and sometimes things get a little fucked up along the way.

And because of that, here’s a fun thing that leads to: resentment. “Oh, it’s just bar karaoke”, you might say, to which I counter that it’s a singing competition, regardless of the method of delivery. You have people busting their ass and who pride themselves on their singing and then their voice catches or the numbers don’t shake out their way or someone will come in for the first time and catch us completely off guard with an incredible performance. So week after week are passing and they’re not making it to the finals.

“What did I do wrong?  What can I do to fix it? What song should I sing?” First off, I’ll never recommend a song to you unless I’ve heard you sing it previously. Secondly, these are things I answer while you’re on stage. I’m not holding back. Cornering me by the bar afterwards isn’t going to make things different.

And it sucks, man. You develop relationships with people. You like their quirks and their personalities. After the show is over, you might even grab a drink together. So it sucks when you can’t pass someone through and they blame you for it. Or they cry. Or they blame themselves.

Performing is an emotional thing and it takes guts and it’s very ego-based. You are demanding attention so that you can give something of yourself back and when it’s ill-received or you fall short of victory, it often makes you feel like shit.

Seven weeks I passed judgment on strangers and friends. Seven weeks I had to see crushing disappointment and anger and tears. And, of course, elation from the winners, which is completely awesome to see, but still. Seven weeks of friends and family members mean-mugging and asking me what the fuck am I thinking and doing.

I almost didn’t go the seventh week and had my friend find a replacement because I didn’t want the pressure. I knew it was the last shot these people had and I didn’t want to be responsible for preventing that for anyone. Ultimately, I decided I had an obligation because I was the one person who had, so far, been there every week. I knew better than anyone what progress was being made and who was putting up their best performance.

I didn’t judge the finals. I’m glad. It would have been a bitch anyway, because the talent was top notch. But for the first time, I got to sit back and just listen to the performances. And holy shit, the crowd was full of people who hated me for not passing them or their friends or families, and people kept getting in my face, demanding to know who I thought would win. So that sucked. The performances were incredible and it was nice to see how many people came together to support some talented singers trying to make a dream come true. But I pretty much took it up the ass for doing my best to get them there.

One final piece of advice for anyone in a competition or planning to compete: if you’re told that maybe you picked the wrong song, pick a different song the next week. If you’re told it’s okay but are given specific things to work on, work on those things instead of picking a different song. A different song at that point could mean brand-new things to work on. Refinement is important.

Be careful about picking difficult songs. They’ll only impress the judges and get you points if you can perform it and you’re not straining on notes or stumbling over runs or lyrics.

And sometimes, if you feel super strongly about it,  do whatever the fuck you want. It might backfire completely, but it might work out, too.

Most importantly, have fun. Feel your songs. Sing to the judges and the crowd but sing FOR you. And never let a bad performance or a loss ever make you feel less about yourself.

One thought on “The Darker Side of Karaoke

  1. Some chick says:

    You were a fair and great judge and I love this post. It’s so true and accurate on so many levels. Thank you for writing this.

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