a slightly off-key ode to karaoke
“Let’s find a bar / so dark we forget who are, / where all the scars / from the nevers and maybes die.” – Out Tonight, Rent
The golden rule of karaoke is that you don’t have to be a good singer. It doesn’t require talent; it requires the desire to have fun.
I’m not a particularly talented singer, but as a devotee to pop culture, I love hit music. Some may say that karaoke is a self-indulgent activity. Someone commands the attention of an impromptu audience (think Jenna Maroney and Verna spontaneously singing “Do That to Me One More Time” on 30 Rock), but I don’t want to be the center of attention. That shouldn’t be the point of karaoke. If you want to be a singer, go to an open mic night and showcase your talent. Karaoke is about the crowd.
This might be particular to my idea of fun, but I love meeting strangers at bars. I’ve been called on to dance onstage at the Dueling Pianos, twerked to “Crazy in Love,” and jazz handed my way through “Dancing Queen” with complete strangers. I like dissolving into the crowd once the song starts, and watching as everyone turns their heads because the bar is playing this one song they haven’t heard in ages but the words roll off their tongues out of muscle memory.
When I sing, I hardly do the singing. The crowded bar takes over in unison, and I become part of the crowd, enjoying the song and the moment. For those who are still hesitant, I recommend a piano bar which is a communal karaoke experience; and since they only know the hits of every decade of every genre of music, the music selections will be on point.
There’s a theory behind a night of good karaoke. The key is song selection, and an entertaining playlist that will please everyone in the karaoke room: a song that will have everyone up and out of their seats, singing along with you and each other. Immediate crowd pleasers include Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” and Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.” Sad songs are only appropriate when they’re sung ironically, like Adele’s “Someone Like You” or Macy Gray’s “I Try.” Too many sad songs in a row will make people question their next stop for the night, bringing down the atmosphere.
Inside jokes are only funny for those in the know. The same applies to songs only you and your friends know about. Instead of creating a bond between strangers, you’re suddenly in the spotlight and performing for the select few who get why “Sugar Daddy” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch is entertaining. When in doubt, choose a throwback, like Smash Mouth’s “All Star” or Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.”
My best nights have been karaoke related. Some would say rock bottom is being cut off at an Applebee’s karaoke night on a Tuesday (before the Big Sean was released). I’d say it’s blast.
My best friends from home and I were all finally in town for a few days, which is now rare. The three of us were each responsible for choosing an activity different from our usual hanging out at each other’s houses. We were also all now 21. Amber chose a lesson in aerial yoga, Marina found a new artisanal restaurant (which are hard to come by in South Texas), and I chose karaoke at our local Applebee’s on a Tuesday.
I was just about to embark on another summer interning in Manhattan, and so I had become begrudgingly accustomed to the ridiculous prices of alcoholic beverages. I’m not surprised when I get a check for a $16 Long Island Iced Tea. No place like New York.
This night was different. Not only was I in Texas, but I was also at Applebee’s, which offered $3 Long Island Iced Teas as their drink special for the evening. I signed a receipt that night for $27, which tells me I ordered nine beverages. Karaoke is also fun over 21.
I started the night off with “Friends in Low Places,” a country music classic by Garth Brooks. The song is basically a “fuck you” to a girl who broke his heart and is now getting married to someone better. Later on in the night, once I was delightfully buzzed, someone else thought that singing this song would be a great idea. I loved it, and the person who chose it. Here was that instant stranger bar connection that I love. I stood on my bar stool, and I felt united with everyone singing along to this emotional release anthem.
So when I saw a man who had very clearly just got off of work from an oil rig (he was still wearing a bright blue jumpsuit) throwing up the middle finger in the air, I felt a kinship like no other. So, I joined my friend and started flicking the world off, in what I thought was karaoke camaraderie. Amber and Marina shoved me down in my seat, I spilled all of our drinks, and our waiter promptly cut me off.
In sober reality, this man had been flicking me off out of anger that I was on the chair and ruining his view of the screen, and was trying to move forward to me to give me a piece of his mind and his fist, but he, alas, was also too drunk.
But for a moment, as many others after and before, we let the off-key music enrapture us and we sang along. Among each other, we shared a song we knew and loved in our way, losing ourselves to the tune.