when karoake ruled

So much of social life is anchored by simple devices. A flag is a piece of cloth on a stick. Wafer and wine become body and blood in church. A karaoke system consists of a microphone, a sound system with voice mixer, a video monitor for lyrics, and some recordings of pop songs with the vocals missing. Everything else depends on the people…”


by rob drew
excerpt from “karoake nights”



Let me tell you about the time I almost got on a network TV pilot.

It’s December of 1990. I have this harebrained idea about doing my doctoral dissertation on karaoke, the Japanese performance craze that’s just begun to infiltrate the U.S., but I have little idea how to go about it. All I know is that my handful of visits to karaoke bars have yielded some of the most exhilarating experiences of public communication I can remember. “Start where you are,” John and Lyn Lofland advise in their guidebook for qualitative research. This is where I am.

Though I live in Philadelphia, I initially travel to New York for my karaoke outings for several reasons. First, I’m not sure I’m ready to sing publicly in the town where I live or anywhere near it. Second, New York is home to the only karaoke bar I know of at the moment. (As it happens, it will be easy to find karaoke bars in Philadelphia. When I begin my research in earnest eight months later, I’ll locate 45 of them in short order.) Third, there’s the bar itself: the Singalong Club, in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan. Karaoke performers, no less than rock stars or opera divas, have their favorite locales. Performers who travel far and wide in search of new karaoke scenes still speak lovingly of their “home bars.” From the night I first attended Singalong and, emboldened by whiskey and cigarettes, warbled Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” to a scattered crowd of last-call diehards, there’s been something special about the place for me. I look forward to the habitues: the guy who tosses stage money to the crowd as he sings the line “Now Macheath spends like a sailor!” from “Mack the Knife”; the Australian who does “My Way” in the voice of Sid Vicious; the young sweethearts who dry-hump their way through “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.”

So much of social life is anchored by simple devices. A flag is a piece of cloth on a stick. Wafer and wine become body and blood in church. A karaoke system consists of a microphone, a sound system with voice mixer, a video monitor for lyrics, and some recordings of pop songs with the vocals missing. Everything else depends on the people.

And so, my last incentive to go to New York this Saturday night is a person, my friend Bill Carney. In choosing a karaoke companion, you want someone who’s seen you at your best and worst, who’s heard such noises emanate from you that nothing would surprise him. For me, Bill is that person—besides which, he’s the only person I know who’s game.

Brothers in arms for years, both Bill and I have always maintained fairly polite and diffident public faces, and barely concealed a desperate longing to be heard. Now and then, empowered by one another’s audience, we’ve given voice to that longing. In 1982, at the auditions for our college talent show, we ambushed the producers with our purportedly humorous skits. My contribution was loosely based on Plato’s Symposium; Bill’s on the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” (we got thrown out on our asses). In 1985, we drove coast-to-coast and cold-called the L. A. office of gonzo record producer Kim Fowley. We fully expected he’d make us stars, despite our having no obvious musical talents and nothing to show but our glorious selves (we got thrown out on our asses). And in May of 1990, it was Bill who phoned me from a hotel bar in Little Rock and told me how some Japanese men in suits were test marketing some sort of singing machine, and how he’d just sung Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” to a bunch of rednecks who weren’t quite sure what to make of him.

But Bill is no Lesley Gore, and I’m no Harold Melvin. In karaoke, as in love, the first time is rarely the most gratifying. You have to be persistent, experiment with different positions, find your comfort zone. Bill and I are two middle class, white guys in our late twenties. We both grew up in music capitals of sorts, though of very different sorts. Bill is from Detroit, heart of rock and soul; I’m from the Borscht Belt, the Jewish resort area of Upstate New York where pre-modern pop stars like Eddie Fisher and Danny Kaye launched their careers. As of this December evening, Bill has settled into a repertoire of slick country tunes that harmonize his Midwestern roots and his Manhattan coming of age: Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road.” I myself, for whatever reason, have been seeking solace among the blue-eyed, Reagan-era sounds that I was born too soon and too skeptical to much enjoy—hits from people like Bryan Adams, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Michael Jackson, Debbie Gibson.

We sit in Bill’s Chelsea apartment and pore over the copy of the Singalong Club’s seven hundred-song “menu” that I’ve brought with me. (The selection at some bars will increase forty-fold in the next ten years. Enter a karaoke bar for the first time, get hold of one of these booklets, and you’re likely to go through a quick series of impressions. First, you’ll think what a joke this is; then, you’ll marvel at the variety of musical choices; and then, you’ll come across a song or two that is so you that you can hardly keep yourself from volunteering.) Bill gets up and cues up a tune on his tape deck: Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” 23-B-8 on Singalong’s menu. He steps back and starts singing:

Last night I went to sleep in Detroit City
And I dreamed about those cottonfields back home
It’s clear to me that he’s practiced alone, though he’d never admit it—no sooner than we’d admit to the people at Singalong that we’d practiced together. We feel obliged to pretend that there’s something fundamentally offhanded and unserious about it all. Bill delivers the lines broadly and smiles now and then.

Home folks think I’m big in Detroit City
From the letters that I write they think I’m fine
But by day I make the cars, by night I make the bars
If only they could read between the lines

For a second, Bill’s smile disappears, and I start reading between the lines. Bare’s Detroit homelessness seemingly gives voice to Bill’s Detroit homesickness. Bare’s tale of northern migration and industrial anomie is now Bill’s story: having migrated east from an ailing industrial region, he toils miserably at a corporate law job that seems meaningless compared to his dad’s auto plant work. Bare’s working-class exploitation provides a metaphor for Bill’s stint as overworked yuppie.

I wanna go home, I wanna go home,
Oh, how I waaanna go home.

It’s a short walk from Bill’s apartment to the club. We flash our I.D.’s and pay our five dollars. Singalong is one of the few bars to charge even this small cover for karaoke. But then Singalong is unusual in larger ways, since it’s devoted exclusively to karaoke. Most karaoke in the U.S. is a makeshift affair: emcees are hired for one or two nights a week, and must scare up performances in settings that may lack even the basic necessities of a stage and a sound system. Only in New York do whole establishments materialize in response to every latest thing: roller discos, beach clubs, juice bars, and seven-night-a-week karaoke bars.

In most respects, Singalong resembles any other small music venue. People mill around a large, open space, with the physical bar tucked off to one side. A three-foot-high stage runs the length of the back wall. Rectangular tables with “reserved” signs project out from the stage, mimicking the privileged territory set aside for industry insiders in “real” music clubs. Yet there are signs that you’re someplace different. In a loft above the bar sits a technician who works a laser disc player instead of a soundboard. Onstage, instead of a band, there are one or more people singing into microphones, alternately looking out at the crowd and into a small video monitor on a stand that displays the song lyrics in sync with the music. To the side of the singers, a wide-screen monitor faces outward for the audience’s benefit.

The performers onstage are likely to appear altogether ordinary—and thus, as onstage performers go, extraordinary. They might be balding, or short, or overweight, or homely. Their clothes might be drab, or too tight, or too loose. They might hold the mikes awkwardly, and their movements might be vague and wary. They might have trouble stopping themselves from laughing, or they might seem to force a laugh to ease the tension. Often, aside from mouthing the words softly, they may not do very much at all, and may seem to be waiting, along with the audience, for something to happen. And if you’re used to seeing performers onstage or on television who are gorgeous, vivacious, and mellifluous, you might very well walk out then and there.

If you hang around long enough, though, something will happen. It might only happen for one performance, or for a brief moment within a performance. Someone will get up on the stage, maybe for the first time, with no expectations and no agenda. She might start off unexceptionally, haltingly. At some point she’ll hit a tough note, or render a poignant lyric with the right twist. The crowd will cheer, and she’ll take their cue to push further. Suddenly she’ll possess the song, and be possessed by it, and surprise everyone, including herself. I’ve seen it happen to others. On this particular evening, it’s my turn.

It seems important not to submit our song choices too hastily, not to seem anxious or overprepared, spontaneity being a fragile condition that must be cultivated or, at times, fabricated. And so we lean on the bar, casually flipping through the song menus and monitoring the action onstage. Eventually, we scribble our names and song choices on the slips of paper provided, and bring them up to the emcee, who takes them with a curt nod.

I’ve taken a risk, choosing a song I’ve never done before and don’t even know very well, number 12-B-10, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” It’s about a guy who gets thrown out of work by a strike and has to live off his girlfriend and pawn his guitar—one of those touching, 1980s paeans to the dignity of the common folk that provided a soundtrack for the real-life trampling of the common folk. It’s all so ridiculous: here I am, the grad student, the intellectual, publicly performing a song more suited to high school girls from Staten Island with big hair and spandex leggings. But there’s something in there for me.

We wait, and watch from the bar. We watch a group of clean-cut, fraternity types, introduced by the emcee as “leaving soon for the Middle East,” lead the crowd in a rousing version of the national anthem, followed by a collective shout of “Fuck Iraq!” We watch a black man in a leather jacket and t-shirt sing an over-the-top, femme version of Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” (“His heart is cold . . . as a witch’s tit in a brass bra!”). We watch many other highlights and lowlights until the emcee announces, “Let’s all welcome Hank!” and Bill, recognizing his nom de guerre, ascends the stage and launches into “Detroit City.”

The cowboys in the crowd recognize the opening chords and shout their approval, and Bill flashes a grin. As he sings, people turn to check him out, this dude with the high voice mouthing his weird, old-time tune. Bill glances at me here and there and I give him the thumbs up. It’s different from singing at home—the crowd complicates his performance. He seems to display his effect on the audience partly for my benefit; at the same time, he and I perform our relationship for the sake of the crowd. Yet while managing this subtle interplay, Bill preserves the slight detachment that I’ve rarely ever seen him breach. He titillates us with glimpses of himself, but ultimately he seems somewhere else, observing the scene from afar.

Oh, how I waaanna go home. As the music fades and the applause mounts, Bill descends from the stage and returns to the bar.

“Nice job,” I say, holding out my hand.

He slaps it and says, “Thanks.” His voice shakes, and I can see that he is brimming with feeling, and I wonder how he manages never to overflow.

I’m next. I stamp out my fourth cigarette and toss back the last of my third beer. Doing karaoke, it becomes easy to understand how so many pop stars destroy themselves. The truth is that no substance-induced buzz can assure the oscillating state of unselfconsciousness and hyperconsciousness that is the stage performer’s bliss. It requires an act of will.

Though I know it is coming, as always, it jars me to hear my name announced. I walk up slowly and experience that weird parallax effect. One moment you’re immersed in a crowd; the next, they’re oriented, as one, toward you. They’re attentive, expectant, making you out. Do something. I sing.

Tommy used to work on the docks
Union’s been on strike, he’s down on his luck
It’s tough . . . so tough

Good, it’s in my key. In karaoke, it’s always a crapshoot. No rehearsal, no screening, no guarantee that you won’t be standing up there for three minutes mutilating your vocal chords, embarrassing yourself and everyone else.

Gina works the diner all day
Working for her man, she brings home the pay
For love . . . for love

Many in the audience sing along with spirit. They know their Bon Jovi, as can be expected from club’s bridge-and-tunnel crowd. That means if I botch it, I’ll be twice as culpable—I’ll have sullied a canonical text. But if I do okay, I’ll have earned their respect. It’s a test of sorts, like taking your horn into Minton’s in Harlem circa 1942 and blowing “Salt Peanuts.”

She says, we’ve gotta hold on to what we’ve got
Cause it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not
We’ve got each other, and that’s a lot
For love, we’ll give it a shot

The song starts to open up for me. Singing Gina’s words for these listeners, the song’s “we” is redefined, and redefines us. It’s no longer about merely surviving, eking out a living; it’s about the performance itself, what we’re experiencing here and now—”what we’ve got.” It’s about “giving it a shot,” taking a risk, allowing yourself to become part of something larger than yourself—and, if you’re lucky, transporting and transforming yourself and others. I close my eyes. Here comes the chorus.

Ohh, we’re halfway there
Ohh-oh! livin’ on a prayer!
You take my hand and we’ll make it, I swear
Ohh-oh! livin’ on a prayer!

The words boom from the crowd. I wail into the mike, struggling not to be drowned out, rejoicing over what I’m wreaking. This is what I’ve waited for, the promise I knew karaoke held. To have a voice, and be heard. To delight myself, and thereby delight others. To make a song my own and dispense it as a gift. The song unfolds like a secret I’m revealing.

Tommy’s got his six-string in hock
Now he’s holdin’ in what he used to make it talk
It’s tough . . . so tough

It must be tough. To be denied your instrument of public speech, your power to do what I’m doing now. For those who long to speak but are too busy subsisting; for those who can’t imagine the terrific euphoria of speech; for those who are simply afraid.

Gina dreams of runnin’ away
When she cries in the night, Tommy whispers
“Baby, it’s okay . . . someday”

I, too, whisper, “It’s okay,” and the crowd seems to sigh, buoyed by my conviction.

. . . Let’s give it a shot!

The last chorus kicks in. I’m raving like a lunatic, breathlessly scaling the ohh-oh’s, singing through every pore. How long have I been up here? How much longer do I have? Just as I’m hoping it will never end . . . it does.

“Let’s have a hand for Rob!” The emcee affords me this generic, closing salute. I descend from the stage, sated and spent. The crowd cheers, and I indulge myself with the feeling that their response to me is above average. But who knows? I want to ask them: was it as good for you as it was for me?

As I walk back through the crowd, people greet me. “Nice job!” “Bon Jovi!” But the exchanges are strangely attenuated. It’s all polite smiles and sidelong glances. None of us are quite sure where I stand.

I return to Bill at the bar. After either of us performs, the other gives him a long look. Maybe I’m waiting for him to explain why he’s so cool; maybe he’s waiting for me to explain why I’m so crazy. But no explanation is ever forthcoming. We never really will know each other. The mystery is part of what sustains us.

I order another beer, expecting more accolades from the bartender. Instead, he silently serves up my drink, gruff and nonchalant. He sees this every night, I realize. This is how rock stars must feel when dealing with roadies. No one’s a hero to his valet.

We’re considering putting in for another round onstage, when an artsy-looking guy in black jeans and a turtleneck approaches us and introduces himself. He’s producing a pilot for a television network, one of those real-life programs, about the wild and wacky ways people spend their Saturday nights. He’s videotaped both our songs and wants permission to use them in his show. Hey, no problem. We sign the release forms, doing our best to act natural.

We decide to call it a night. There’s no feeling like leaving the room having impressed everyone present (or believing you have)–even, perhaps especially, when you’ll never see them again. Unlike singing pros, karaoke performers can always quit while they’re ahead (though they often don’t know how to), and tonight Bill and I are way ahead. “Who were those masked men?” I imagine people asking.

On our way home, we laugh openly, deliriously. Our big break! We’ve been discovered! It’s such a joke, yet all our joking can’t dilute our sincere joy. Karaoke performers often dream of an audience beyond their bars. (Months later, as I sit watching performances and taking notes for this study, more than one singer will approach me and ask if I’m a talent scout.) If this is the ultimate goal of karaoke, then we’ve attained it.

Later, lying in the dark on Bill’s foldout couch, I’m sobered by doubts. First, a sense of irony, and then uneasiness, that I, an academic observer, have posed as native for another, filmic observer. Shouldn’t we have declined and directed the guy to some more experienced performers—some more authentic natives?

But what really troubles me is that I evidently care so much about this. I’m supposed to be scouting for a research topic. Instead, I’m running around bars making an fool of myself, elated when a TV camera happens to catch my charade. What do I expect to come of this? Who do I think I’m kidding?

Wired on cigarettes, I lie half-awake for hours, the words of the song I performed reeling through my head like an oppressive mantra. The next morning, I have a breakfast date with an old girlfriend I haven’t seen in years. Hung over and drawn, I put in another performance, this one dismal.

Two months pass and I call the TV producer. He’s finished the pilot but the network has passed on it. I study the media for a living, so I’m fully aware that most pilots produced for television are never aired. I’m still disappointed.

The producer kindly sends me a copy of the pilot, my first recording of myself as karaoke performer. (Such recordings are common possessions among experienced performers; karaoke is nothing if not reflexive. Many emcees will sell you a video of your performance for a small price, and some give away cheap audiocassettes for free.)

I stick the tape in my VCR and fast-forward to the karaoke segment. A montage of performers parades across the screen. I find myself watching them, not through the eyes of a crowd member in a karaoke bar, but through those of a television viewer—a role to which I am more accustomed. Before long, it is clear to me that this program would not have made a celebrity of anyone. In the world of television, there seem to be two types of people: those who belong there and those who don’t. The markers that lent character to performers onstage render them hopelessly out of place on television. Not having received the television treatment of make-up and wardrobe, the performers don’t look very different from the petty offenders rounded up every day on Cops. If real life is what you want, then real life is what you get.

Whereas the karaoke bar experience can be totally absorbing, its televised version induces couch-potato cynicism. I watch as two overweight, middle-aged guys—one with nerdy glasses, the other with his shirt collar folded unfashionably over his sweater–do a monotone rendition of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Five college girls squeal “Like A Virgin” as their excessive make-up starts to run under the hot lights. Two boys in acid-washed jeans, dress shirts and gold chains (from Long Island, no doubt) stand stiffly, lumbering through a Buttafuoco-esque version of “Brandy.”

Then there’s Bill. Just the sight of the guy is enough to lift me. But watching him with his chin in the air and his eyes half-open, pumping his arms slightly and tossing the mike from one hand to the other (his signature move), even Bill, who seemed so understated and cool at the bar, now seems kind of dull.

And then there’s me. I’m struck by how fat I look—not yet late-Elvis fat, but still fat. I’m struck by how drab my clothes look, how messy my hair looks, how puffy my face looks, how profusely I sweat, how clumsily I move, how flatly I sing. More than anything, I’m struck by the disparity between everything I see on that screen, and everything I felt on that stage.

And I know one thing: I’ll believe what I feel over what I see any day.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-One
August 2002


Excerpted from Karaoke Nights: An Ethnographic Rhapsody, published by AltaMira Press in 2001.

Rob Drew teaches communication at Saginaw Valley State University. His research interests include ethnography, popular music, and media audiences.


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