Posted by: Addison – Aug 24, 2012
As the lights go down, a wave of silence ripples through a crowd eager to know who the next gladiator to enter the ring will be. When your name is called, an initial lump forms in your throat, as if the date of your funeral was just announced. You stand up and approach the makeshift platform that, for the next three to four minutes, will serve as the stage that could make or break the remainder of your evening. As your crucial choice appears on the screen, the audience of strangers reacts accordingly; some in favor, others skeptical of your ability to live up to the hype.
This is karaoke.
For some, it is synonymous with drunken antics that inevitably lead to apocalyptic hangovers. For others, it's a dreadful bar gimmick that involves local drunks showing off the fact that their ability to hold a note is on par with William Hung. And still for others, it is an addictive hobby that simply cannot be ignored.
Personally falling into the third category, I equate karaoke with an experience that has the potential high of MDMA and the low of a bad acid trip. Perform properly, and thou shalt be rewarded with a rock star presence, as well as middle-aged groupies who couldn’t get a ticket to the Van Halen reunion tour and will settle for the next best thing. Get in too deep, and you will quickly become the laughingstock of a group that won’t remember your name come tomorrow morning.
If this were the mid-1990’s, I would label karaoke as my anti-drug. It is what I rely on in days of strife; the unopened bottle of Jack Daniels I look forward to after a horrible day at work. It is where I go to meet friends; my safe haven to go relieve stress. When I don’t perform for more than a week, I begin to break out in hypothetical hives that make me feel like I’m contracting a case of permanent gonorrhea. When I perform too many days in a row, I laugh to myself. In my world, there is no such thing.
For years, I've been completely fascinated with this after-hours phenomenon, the elements that comprise it, and the people that willingly participate. I have performed in dozens of cities across the country at various levels of intoxication. I’ve seen karaoke performances that have literally made my jaw drop, and others that have made me so embarrassed for the person(s) involved, I felt like I was watching a post-2002 Adam Sandler movie. I’ve had nights where karaoke got me laid, and I’ve had others where it cost me friendships. But much like new episodes of Honey Boo Boo Child, it always makes me shake my head for one reason or another, and forces me to come back for more.
And just like any artisan dedicated to his craft, my curiosity finally got the best of me. I decided to dedicate seven nights of my twenty-something life to exploring the karaoke world that I’ve been actively participating in since I became old enough to (legally) set foot in a bar. Some of it was good, some was bad, and a small slice was ugly. I ventured to all four corners of Richmond in search of the best and worst experiences I could possibly get my hands on—a mission I would later regret, due to the number of showers it would take to make myself feel comfortable showing my face in public again.
My adventure began as all good adventures do—in a dark, half-empty bar that looked better prepared for an impromptu game of "duck-duck-goose" than a night of alcohol-drenched sing-alongs. Sporting one table of twenty-somethings that were hanging on every note and another who looked as though they'd be more entertained picking lint out of their belly buttons, Cary Street Cafe was an ideal atmosphere for trying out new and unfamiliar songs—decent audience, but little risk of public humiliation. Not exactly the place you'd want for an unforgettable barn burner.
The cafe was also a prime example of something you should always consider when venturing out to sing—the possibility that the song you have your heart set on may simply be unavailable. You may stroll in wanting to sing “What’s Your Fantasy,” by Ludacris, but end up belting out “My Way” by Usher, because the former is strangely absent from every karaoke book I’ve ever laid eyes on. I walked into the building with a craving to do Eminem’s long-winded fictional jam, “Stan,” only to be given the choice of “Real Slim Shady” or no Slim Shady at all. Eventually, I made the executive decision to go with the Marcy’s Playground one-hit wonder “Sex and Candy” - not because sex, candy, or any combination of the two were present in the audience, but because the slow, monotone song seemed to fit right in with everything going on around me.
Within the karaoke underworld, the rule that carries a 'Fight Club' amount of weight is to know your audience at all times. No matter what bar you’re in, who happens to be there, or how many drunk people are groping each other, always know the audience you are about to entertain before picking your song. My desire to sing “Bust a Move” by Young MC likely wouldn’t go over well with Cary Street Cafe's low-key crowd, but it went over without a hitch on Monday, where I landed at a spot so far from Kansas, not even my ruby slippers could help me find home.
To be fair, Lakeside Tavern isn’t as bad as people say. Yes, it’s next door to Lakeside Appliances, because a shot of whiskey and a used refrigerator go together like Tom and Jerry. But when you look past the fact that the neighborhood looks as if it’s been featured on every episode of COPS ever made and the “round of applause” audio sample played after each singer was on a 'Two and a Half Men' level of uncomfortable, you’ll find a quaint karaoke spot where people wearing outfits blurring the line between overalls and “jeans with straps” surprised the entire room with a killer rendition of “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. The song choice alone took me by surprise, but the electrifying performance knocked me on my ass. It’s not that I don’t have faith in my fellow man. It’s just that when you've done karaoke as much as I have, the art of predicting a performance quality based solely on the singer and their song choice becomes similar to watching a round of “Teen Jeopardy” - you may get one wrong here and there, but for the most part, you’re probably going home with the grand prize.
Sticky Rice on Tuesday night was so refreshing, I thought somebody was secretly baptizing me. After two straight nights of being surrounded by what I thought for sure was the reincarnated cast of The Waltons, the sight of boobs my own age was like a Nintendo 64 on Christmas morning. Performing karaoke at Sticky Rice on a Tuesday night is the Richmond equivalent of headlining Madison Square Garden - the small sushi bar is almost always packed with hipsters and frat guys alike who are eager to sing everything from Paul Simon to Passion Pit. Tables and booths normally reserved for scarfing down California Rolls are used as catwalks during singing performances, and if your alcohol intake outweighs your karaoke ability, a loud gong behind the bar is smashed to signify the fact that you look like a complete asshole.
As mighty as Sticky Rice may be, it also exhibits several unwritten karaoke no-no’s that teeter on the “common sense” side of things as opposed to actual “rules.” No matter what your vocal abilities are, there are just some artists that cannot (and should not) be touched during an activity as drunkified as karaoke. The Beatles and Michael Jackson, for instance, should never be attempted, no matter what your level of intoxication or how hot you think the crowd is. The guy who attempted Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” ended up as most in this position do; flat on their face. Some things are just better left admired instead of imitated. Karaoke is no exception.
If Sticky Rice is like playing Madison Square Garden, that would make Caddy’s the karaoke equivalent of playing Larry the Cable Guy’s two-car garage. The longtime Southside establishment is so close to Midlothian Turnpike you can practically taste the broken dreams as you walk passed Rambo’s Dry Cleaning, conveniently located just next door. Once inside, you are greeted with interior decorating that would make Martha Stewart drool; the 2012 NASCAR schedule, which is loudly displayed on the wall, hangs dangerously close to the nest of the DJ, who looks, acts, talks and grinds like he may be better suited as a strip club announcer. The crowd, seemingly unaffected by these novelties, huddled around any booth or table they can get their ass in, leaving me standing in the back, observing the numerous inflatable palm trees and endless different types of jean shorts.
Despite a location that was better suited for a brothel, and a slight interior decorating crisis, Caddy’s stood proud as a perfect example of what happens when good things arrive in dirty packages. For the most part, the songs were on point and entertaining, including the fellow in the cowboy hat who poured his heart into “With Arms Wide Open” by Creed as if he had actually helped conceive the song’s main subject. The rest of the crowd, which noticed I was a “newbie” and greeted me accordingly, was extremely receptive and went absolutely wild when I launched into Eminem’s angry anthem “The Way I Am.” One man enjoyed my rendition so much he came up and let me know that another bar down the road offers a $500 cash prize for karaoke every week and that he believes I should enter. I didn’t - not because I was unappreciative of his compliment, but because his Nickelback neck tattoo caused any compliment he gave me to be a complete and total wash.
As life always seems to do, it saved the best for last. I thought I had seen it all during my seven-day adventure, but the first six days had just been the karaoke equivalent of the first 98 minutes of The Sixth Sense. Friday night at Quaker Steak and Lube, as it turns out, was the last five minutes.
Before entering Quaker Steak, I made sure that my expectations were set at a level that was reasonable for what I was up against: karaoke held at a public establishment containing a true-to-scale NASCAR vehicle hanging from the ceiling and a beer entitled “lube tube” on its menu. My initial feeling was that even if this thing went better than expected and Jeff Gordon himself came out of the woodwork and performed “Call Me Maybe,” the next few hours of my life promised to be about as exciting and reckless as Mother Teresa’s driving record.
I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.
When I walked into the wing and booze palace around 10 PM, the large dining room area was jam packed with every type of person you could possibly imagine, full families included. The man on the mic was an employee, and no matter what his official title was, he was definitely pursuing the wrong career. His song choice, “Break Ya Neck,” by Busta Rhymes, isn’t the type of tune you often hear at karaoke - not because it fails to make your booty pop like a fresh bottle of champagne, but because it’s a song that can’t be duplicated by anyone except for the original artist. Unless, of course, you happened to be a dishwasher at Quaker Steak and Lube.
In a performance that was just as unexpected as it was charismatic, the blue-collar worker nailed every word, successfully imitating one of the fastest rappers in the history of the genre. When the song ended and he took a well-deserved bow, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation that patrons on the back patio likely assumed was caused by a waitress dropping a full pint of beer.
Every soul that took the stage was either exceptionally talented, in the mood to have the time of their life, or a seamless combination of both. The people singing these songs weren’t karaoke regulars; they didn’t think about their song choice days ahead of time or practice their stage presence in front of the bathroom mirror. These were normal people with normal jobs and normal lives who simply wanted to experience karaoke; not because it would give them four minutes of fame, but because it contained an adrenaline rush that is unmatched by most non-death defying activities. These were everyday bar-goers who were simply allowing themselves to be swept up in the magic of karaoke; the unparalleled rush you don’t even realize you are experiencing because you’re way too busy creating memories, one drunken anthem at a time.
The patrons of Quaker Steak and Lube enjoyed their karaoke experience because they had unlocked the true secret to the art behind it. While so many attempt to find the key to this well-kept secret at the bottom of every tequila shot they consume before heading on stage, few realize that karaoke is not about alcohol consumption or “making a fool out of yourself.” It is an art that was created for the sake of adult entertainment and perfected by those who recognized its true potential. It is these perfectionists -- the ones who paved the way for karaoke to flourish as the addictive hobby that it has inevitably become -- that I secretly thank every time my name is called and I set foot onto that makeshift platform.