We Are the Stars
By Kim Mellen
JANUARY 4, 1999:
There is a legend of a karaoke bar somewhere in East Texas that has a Gong Show-style
setup in which the bartender can gong the really toe-curling, butt-cringing bad singers
off the stage. One man began to mangle "Hotel California," and the bartender
chimed in with his party-pooping death knell. The man, not getting it, kept singing.
The bartender banged again. A few audience members saw what was going on, and began
to sing along. Loudly. Soon the whole bar joined in, drowning out the repeated gongs
from the naysaying bartender. Moral of the story? Well, yes, weird things happen
when the Eagles are involved in any way; but the real lesson here is that karaoke
is all about respect.
This is only a legend because institutionalized jeering is unheard of within the
karaoke community -- ask anyone. Granted, karaoke has its detractors. It's not a legitimate
musical form, the complaint goes. It's too cheesy. Too scary.
"Why would anyone want to listen to bad songs sung badly?" These people
whine. "As if."
This is the first and last time these concerns will be addressed: Karaoke is not
only not an insidious scourge upon the arts -- an embarrassment to the embarrassments
of musical history -- to the growing international army of Just Plain Folk who revere
it, karaoke is a great equalizer, a chance to be a star, if only for three minutes.
For them -- for us -- karaoke is everything that music should be, and our devotion
is almost religious in nature.
"My higher power is people singing in unison," muses Bruce, karaoke
host and owner of Barnstormers, a studio-store that also rents karaoke equipment
with or without attendant hosts. Nothing, he contends, matches the power of karaoke
when it comes to bringing people together. He's hosted shows at kicker bars -- "the
kind of places cowboys go to look for fights" -- but once he turns on the machine,
"It's peace in the valley." It gets punk kids, war vets, and rich golfer-types,
the whole gamut of races and classes, to make idiots of themselves ... together.
Groups who begin the evening on opposite sides of the bar are soon one big conga-lining,
stage-diving, dueting melee. "It's a beautiful thing," he insists.
Austin's hands-down karaoke Mecca, the Common Interest, truly lives up to its
vaguely utopian name: Of all the karaoke venues in town, it has the least definable
crowd. There are black, white, and brown people, gay and straight people, junior
and senior citizens. What, though, do the words "The Common Interest" mean
to the people who run it and live it? The object of their desire can't be just karaoke;
the Interest's original incarnation -- over two decades ago on Medical Parkway -- was
a piano bar (which, arguably, is a close cousin of the karaoke experience). Whatever
it is: singing, drunkenness, sex, it's open to poetic interpretation. "It's
a place where anyone can feel like a star," Karaoke Jockey (or KJ) Michael Koury
postulates. "People tend to love the applause and affection from the crowd.
People that need attention come in here because the audience is usually very nice,
and if they're not I throw them out." Koury began his employment at the Interest
as bouncer, so be nice. The KJ manager Mike Stevens also waxes sentimental, likening
his realm and the barflies within to Cheers. "We have a very strong family
relationship here. Through all the booze and egos, we all really love each other."
Incidentally, there's a gay bar in Houston also called the Common Interest, so the
CI in Austin gets many inquiries as to whether there's an association. There isn't,
says Stevens, but the Austin Common Interest is gay-friendly. But the real
question here, of course, is: Are those queens in Houston karaoke-friendly?
The Song Remains the Same?
An etymological moment: The word "karaoke" (Japanese, of course) takes
the "kara" part from karappo, meaning empty, and "oke"
from okesutura, or orchestra. The legend of the advent of the empty orchestra
more than 20 years ago, tossed around on many a translated-from-Japanese Web site,
begins with a strolling guitarist who had a regular gig at a Kobe snack bar. The
owner kept tapes of the guitar accompaniment, which he put on when the musician couldn't
come in. The patrons enjoyed singing along to them. Little did these Kobeans know
that this modest "completion" of the empty six-string would send shockwaves
throughout the world more far-reaching and enduring than their city's 1995 earthquake.
Throw in the CD revolution of the Eighties, with the all-important ability to skip
instantly between tracks, and boom: an industry.
The Japanese are not afraid to party, nor are they afraid to sing, according to
Karaoke Scene online magazine (http://www.karaokescene.com). A tradition of
solo singing at gatherings made the Japanese easy conduits for the fervent spread
of this new technology. "It has never mattered whether the person sings well
or not. Even if he sings out of tune, it can spark laughter and make the party more
lively. The Japanese are generous when they listen to other people sing, and can
easily sing in front of others without feeling reluctance. ... For corporate soldiers
living in a stressful society, there is no other entertainment that can make them
feel so refreshed." Karaoke indeed began as wholesome entertainment for businessmen,
but quickly became popular among all sectors of society and spread to the far reaches
of the globe. Along the way the format has evolved from cassettes and CDs with only
the musical accompaniment, to CDs with still graphics (CD+Gs) and scrolling lyrics,
to laser discs with all that plus full-motion videos.
How a song gets from a gleam in the musician's eye to a karaoke laserdisc is as
convoluted as anything in the music business. The elementary version: First, the
publisher makes his deal with the songwriter for the publishing rights. Included
in these publishing rights is sheet music, video rights, "a whole slew of rights
that normal people would not think about," explains Barnstormer Bruce. "What's
happened in the last 10 years is there's been a karaoke right: the right to display
the words on the screen, the right to re-record the song, and limited use of that
rendition." Producers of karaoke pay the publishing companies for this package
of rights to re-create the songs or alter original tracks, to put them into different
keys and such. Although you can buy stereos that turn down the vocals of original
songs for a home-baked version of karaoke, this is not the case with legitimate karaoke,
in which the original artists' tracks are never used.
In the flurry of publishing rights, most artists don't even know their songs are
being karaokified -- they'd never imagine their songs would be used to that end. This
brings up the ethical questions of karaokification (if I may be so morphologicially
bold), but really, we're talking the music industry here. "If they have Jimi
Hendrix doing Nike commercials ... is that more of a bastardization?" Bruce
asks. "I think it is."
Nonetheless, some artists (or the owners of their catalog) withhold the so-called
"karaoke rights," among them Paul Simon and Bob Seger. "They also
happen to be artists that have a lot of integrity," Bruce submits, only half-jokingly.
And if you see songs off of, for instance, the Beatles' White Album, "The
word is that it's coming from Mexico. It's illegal, but they're still out there."
Sometimes, too, the rights can be withdrawn, halting any further empty orchestration
of the artists' catalog, as is the case with our friends the Eagles. Songs that have
already been committed to disk and disseminated throughout the lonely-hearts bars
of the world can't be recalled in any sort of practical manner. This, along with
the karaoke's version of bootlegging, creates a sort of black market in the largely
innocent world of karaoke trading, fueled in part by demands for hard-to-get or out-of-print
collections and certain versions of songs ("Delta Dawn" as done by Bette
Midler instead of Helen Reddy, for instance, or the full vs. abridged versions of
Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?").
And just like the business behind karaoke, being a Karaoke Jockey, or KJ, is more
complicated than simply changing discs, explain Debbie and Dennis Saiki, owners of
Laser Entertainment Techsys, a local company that rents machines (with or without
accompanying KJs) for home parties and supplies a number of local venues with equipment.
As the evening begins, the KJ typically has to deal with crowd apathy and shyness;
the buzz of the speakers punctuated only by a number or two sung by the KJ. "My
husband comes with me a lot, and other relatives, so if nobody else is singing, I
at least have some backups and it's not just me," says Pam Spencer of Absolutely
Awesome Karaoke, a mobile KJ business. "We entice, threaten, start contests
to pay off bar tabs." As the celebration progresses, the KJ has to sort through
an increasing deluge of requests and try to stick with an equal-opportunity rotation,
often fending off impatient drunks eager to sing.
So is there any chance of currying favor with your hired host to get your song
bumped up in rotation, say by brandishing a little cash money? "None. Forget
it," insists the Common Interest's KJ Mike Stevens. He claims to have turned
down $100 bribes and a suspicious plea from a doctor who said his pager had just
summoned him to go deliver a baby. Greasing palms doesn't fly, at least at the Common
Interest. "Tipping is nice, but it doesn't bump your song up here! We have a
certain rotation to follow so that new singers take precedence over previous singers,"
KJ Koury, ever the diplomat, explains. Nor will a request for a song a particular
KJ strongly likes or dislikes effect your place in line.
Koury likes "That's Life," "Mack the Knife," and "Waterfalls."
Stevens has a soft spot for "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" by Elton
John. Koury grimaces at Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the B-52's "Love
Shack," and Stevens' turn-offs are simple: "Any country." Citing the
crowd's love for these particular songs, though, Koury said he didn't mind them too
much. Spencer dislikes Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition" and David
Allen Coe's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name," and likes "anything
sung by someone who can actually carry a note." Then there are the songs that
ought be reserved for the truly talented, songs the KJs frequently cited as being
over most vocalists' heads: "New York, New York," R.E.M.'s "It's the
End of the World as We Know It," and Young M.C.'s "Bust a Move." If
you think you're up to snuff, then maybe you're ready for the glorious, authentic
Pacific Rim karaoke experience.
Two Tickets to Paradise
Karaoke Paradise is an irony-free popular hangout for Korean students. The night
we went, judging from the crowd singalongs to the Korean pop songs, my group and
I were the only American natives. I recommend the place just for the little bit of
nightlife culture-shock awaiting inside the easily overlooked San Jacinto bar. Witness
shots being chased with milk, taste the best popcorn ever, warm and buttery!
Where the Common Interest is all about football decor, the Paradise is an Eighties
New Wave palace: The posters aren't Nagels, but they have the same noseless eyeshadow-and-lipsticky
female face-thing going on. There are beer mirrors and blacklights, and one of those
shimmery moving-waterfall signs (Kim Phung has the same one). There's a KJ, but the
at-bat and on-deck performer is never announced; the next six songs are displayed
by number at the top of the TV screens. They have a CD+G system instead of the fancier
laserdiscs: Images of trees, temples, and gazelles fade in and out to the strains
of Korean rap. Pretty! When the song comes to an instrumental break a little biplane
flies across the screen trailing a banner that says "Interlude," and a
cool drum roll plays between numbers. The choices are all Korean, except for a few
pages listing "American Favorite Songs"; the selection of these is delightful.
There's "Last Christmas" by Wham!, for instance, Santana's "Black
Magic Woman" and Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly," too. Next to
the song titles in the books is the first line of the lyrics, a nice touch to stir
recognition: I shudder to think of how many crowd-pleasers have been passed over
because the song title isn't instantly recognizable or for fear of not knowing the
lyrics except for the chorus. The Korean kids do an occasional English song, but
all the Korean songs start out sounding vaguely like an American Favorite Song until
the words kick in. Everyone sounds great here: lots of the patrons had quite a set
of pipes, for sure, but the microphones are turned way down and the echo way up,
masking less accomplished voices -- a plus for first-timers.
Later, without announcement, the karaoke seamlessly morphed into a set of dance
music, and all of a sudden we -- and one guy at the next table who was hunched over
looking like he was about to puke -- were the only people not up onstage dancing.
Then the pukey guy bounded up there too. The karaoke numbers kept rotating, though;
we watched the lyrics to Lionel Richie's "Hello" float across the screen
as everyone freaked to techno. The spectacle ended as suddenly as it began, and the
karaoke started up again just in time for our songs, quelling any conspiracy theories
we might have been cooking up.
What a Feeling
Of the many bars, restaurants, and hotels offering karaoke nights, Eastside taqueria
Pato's Tacos Saturday nights are quite popular. The crowd is made up of two primary
groups: regulars, and diners who look like they stumbled into this involuntarily
and are either observing the scene with anthropological interest or wolfing down
their tacos with their eyes on the door, plotting their hasty exit. The regulars
are a force to be reckoned with. They are very insular, turning in amongst themselves
and their cigarettes and wine 'ritas and all but ignoring unfamiliar faces. The KJ,
Edie Castillo, made the rounds of the tables, and hugs abounded.
Not that this difficult-to-penetrate atmosphere is necessarily bad: It's a good
stage for the deflowering of a karaoke virgin, and the wait is far shorter here than
at most places. Maybe it just takes the right song to pull everyone together, though:
When a non-regular singer, a would-be Irene Cara, sang "Flashdance (What a Feeling),"
some young male regulars lined up in front of the stage and danced the cabbage patch
and the running man. Now that's what I call love, karaoke style.
Life Is a Cabaret
A good karaoke session will always have jaw-dropping performances, honest-to-god
homages to irony-proof classics. A good karaoke session can put you back in touch
with all kinds of songs you didn't realize you knew until you heard them anew, from
wacky Sixties psychedelia to Eighties power ballads. A good karaoke session might
make you ponder the analogy: Toto is to "Africa" as Asia is to "_____,"
or long for the days of Laura Branigan and Sylvia (of "Nobody" one-hit
wonderdom). Much joy can be had when modern bands that people with taste find unacceptable,
like the Cranberries, are given a satisfying twist by being immortalized in karaoke.
Bless the karaokers, because in their hearts and imaginations are where bands like
Journey, Foreigner, R.E.O. Speedwagon, and Genesis continue a robust career. And
where else but a karaoke bar will you hear someone utter, "I'd like to do a
Bread song someday, but I don't think I'm emotionally ready."
And that's just part of the assault on your senses. Karaoke accompaniment videos,
too, are high art. Where MTV videos are all about rock stars standing around looking
pensive, karaoke videos are the last stronghold of the narrative music video, some
with a one-to-one correspondence to the actions taking place in the song, some having
absolutely squat to do with the song but with a cohesive plot nonetheless. You can
impress your date by making deep theoretical statements about how ever-changing interpretations
of the songs juxtaposed upon these images makes for a profound performance piece.
There's a boating theme in the video for Toto's "Hold the Line." "Sunny"
by Bobby Hebb features an interracial couple finding love and discovering the power
of dance as a fake fire rages in the hearth behind them. In "Let's Give 'em
Something to Talk About" by Bonnie Raitt, a top-hatted dwarf performs semaphore,
and employing various magnifying devices, makes a number of unsuccessful attempts
at voyeurism on a modern-country coupling of a lusty female bumpkin and a Marlboro-man-stud
before they all get together and have a good hearty laugh ... then, again with the
semaphore. In one karaoke video version of a Joe Jackson song, the keen observer
can spot influences by the portal-to-fantasy-world-of-love of A-Ha's "Take on
Me" and Olivia Newton-John's "Physical."
A Puppet, a Pauper, a Pirate, a Poet ...
Lifestyle magazines have begun to take note of karaoke's growing popularity amongst
scenesters and celebrities. "Beautiful people shouldn'tbe allowed to karaoke,"
responds Teresa, a local diehard karaoke fanatic. "They get enough attention
as it is. Karaoke is for us losers and dorks." Too true, though who wouldn't
want to see famous singers karaoke-ing to their own songs, as in the true story of
David Lee Roth singing "Just a Gigolo" at New York City's Elbow Room. Back
home, the Common Interest attracts the occasional local celebrity. Shawn Colvin has
been spotted there, though sources say she unfortunately did not sing "Sonny
Came Home," which they do have there on the box. One barfly insists that honky-tonktress
Kelly Willis used to hang out there. And Brent Gorrell, leader of the perennial group
Brent Gorrell & the 47 Indians, works and sings there. Pinetop Snooky's annual
Karaoke Christmas at Hole in the Wall draws many a lonely heart who doesn't have
(or is escaping from) family. Bruce: "The crowd there is all musicians -- they
don't have families for a reason."
"Real" musicians, in fact, find that no audience is more supportive
than a karaoke audience, not even the ones that pay to see them. The clapping and
whooping and singing along is wholehearted, even when the singer can't carry a tune.
Fear of a bad voice keeps so many from getting onstage, but those who only like to
watch are missing the point: a good voice is completely unnecessary. You can captivate
a karaoke audience with whatever you got: flourish, song choice, endearing shyness,
comically bad singing, anything! Hearing forgotten favorites rendered through sundry
personalities makes for a laugh riot.
The fact that kitsch kulture has become status quo is also a reason that karaoke
is gaining younger, hipper, and even famous followers, but karaoke existed before
the current retro wave and will certainly outlive the fickle fancies of ironic young
people. Barnstormer Bruce says he was warned of the fad factor when he chose this
line of work. "My friends have been telling me for the last nine years that
this is a trend that's going to go away, but it's only getting bigger."
If karaoke is becoming mainstream and trendy, though, no worries -- to enjoy the
spectacle that is karaoke, you have to be open-minded enough to enjoy and respect
people from all walks of life singing all kinds of disagreeable songs, even the Grease
soundtrack, and yes, even modern country.
Songs in the Key of Life
Maybe karaoke is a godsend: not only a cure for bored souls, but, as Karaoke
Scene suggests, a cure for many of the world's ills. It facilitates family communication
through singing, important in a time of widespread loosening of the moral fibers
and the slackening of family values. The words on a television monitor, especially
when accompanied by scenes of a video, can be used in the fight against illiteracy.
Karaoke's interactive nature gets people off their fat, lazy asses and involved in
their own entertainment instead of being passive, consumptive vessels. Pretty whacked
ideals, sure, but if karaoke ends up saving the world, then I, for one, want to live
in that world.
The variety of genres and sheer quantity of classics make your average karaoke
box a sort of jukebox of the gods. Karaoke is music stripped of the original artists
who made it -- and all the attendant ego and greed of musical superstars and the industry
-- and given back to the people. And these people are doing more than just following
the lyrics on the screen. They're doing something beautiful: communing with others
who share their common interest, and in this communion they ascend to a spiritual
place vacated by the false deities studding the music industry. In this place, everyone
is a star and pleasure is had by all, even when it's delivered in the wrong key.