by Brett Warner
Every other Friday night, T.J. Byrnes Restaurant and Bar in Manhattan’s Financial District hosts a modestly produced karaoke night. The small, unassuming Irish pub is tucked away behind a towering housing project, and on any such night, nearby residents might hear the echoes of drunken laughter or the faint opening bass notes of The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” For Rutgers professor Fred Solinger and bookstore manager George Carmona, though, this is not just about getting plastered and mumbling through a semi-coherent rendition of “Copacabana”— it’s turf warfare.
The conspicuously underage student body of nearby Pace University have begun moving in on karaoke night at T.J.’s, a night rightfully belonging to the seasoned song and drink veterans of the nearby Borders Books on Wall Street. With their awkwardly well-choreographed group numbers and so-unironic-it-hurts attempts at Britney Spears’ early material these captains of camp have thrown the sing-along gauntlet at our grizzled, retail-weary feet.
Who do these trust fund brats think they are? Don’t they know that we fucking invented serious karaoke?
A brief history lesson: the word karaoke is a portmanteau of the Japanese words kara (“empty”) and ōkesutora (“orchestra”). Its invention is generally credited to ‘70s Japanese singer Inoue Daisuke, who built the earliest incarnation of the karaoke machine after patrons in the local Utagoe Kissa coffee shops would request instrumental versions of his songs so that they could sing along at home. The savvy vocalist began renting out his new machine, which initially charged 100 yen per song, to local businesses. The novelty song boxes began to catch on, and over the course of the next decade, karaoke bars, booths, and restaurants began creeping up all across Asia, eventually making it to the United States in the early nineties.
Scientists have yet to rule definitively what causes Serious Karaoke Singing (or, SKS), though patients are usually in their early to late thirties, generally well versed in popular music while lacking any instrumental proficiency. In some instances, the subject maybe homeless, a listed sex offender, or the creepy Arby’s manager who only sings mid-period Elvis Presley. Whatever its origins, SKS is a rapidly growing phenomenon in which the karaoke singer takes to the mic with serious, oftentimes borderline obsessive determination to sing both well and accurately. In extreme cases, the patient may refrain from alcohol consumption altogether!
As a long-time sufferer of SKS, I feel it is my duty to document the everyday pitfalls and predilections of this very rare, socially non-normative disorder. For your careful consideration, I have compiled a short list of three dogmatic principles on which the garden variety Serious Karaoke Singer will base his or her vocal performance:
For the seasoned karaoke veteran, song selection is no mere heat/spur of the moment decision and, as such, is rarely taken lightly or recklessly. The prudent amateur vocalist will spend lengthy hours during the intermittent weeks between karaoke gatherings pouring over his or her iTunes library, making a mental or written note of which tunes to request on the subsequent evening in question. The subject will rarely if ever repeat a selection, except in self-referential instances, motivated by either nostalgia or circumstantial emotional factors (see “Impact” below). The subject can list in order of annoyance the Do Not Do’s, which include capital offenses like “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” any Beatles song, and (worst of all) anything that’s come out within the last six months. Additionally, the subject’s “set list” will be meticulously planned out ahead of time, opening with a suitably upbeat party starter (“Sledgehammer,” “1999,” anything by the Pet Shop Boys), peaking with a crowd-involving anthem (“Freedom ’90,” perhaps), and finishing off with an emotionally satisfying climax (“Take Me Home” and “Closing Time” are some obvious choices). The subject will know every local karaoke joint’s songbook inside and out, dissecting and analyzing each one’s variety, quirky typos, and propensity towards left-field inclusions (“Stripsearch” by Faith No More, anything by Tool). Finally, the subject will make regular requests to their resident karaoke DJ, ranging from the completely unreasonable (anything by Tori Amos that isn’t “Cornflake Girl”) to the painfully obvious (every good karaoke book should have Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World”).
For the Serious Karaoke Singer, alcohol consumption is just one of several variables factoring in the overall performance. Vodka based drinks are very easy on the vocal chords, for example, while dark, heavier beers have the propensity to induce involuntary gagging during especially strenuous numbers. (Nobody wants to hear a dry heave during the soaring chorus of “Kiss From A Rose”.) The seasoned karaoke vet knows to pace him or herself accordingly, choosing more raucous songs later in the evening, when timbre, pitch, and proper embellishment are less easily achieved (see “Selection” above). It goes without saying that the SKS subject knows each chosen song inside and out, and may very well practice at home during the days leading up to, or even during, the karaoke excursion. You can usually spot one of them sitting alone in the corner, listening to their iPod with steely-eyed concentration, trying to remember exactly how D’Angelo phrases that third line in “Untitled.” Through trial and error, the subject soon learns which of the three versions of Prince’s “Kiss” are in the correct key and exactly how far they can carry a convincing falsetto. (“Tragedy” is a full ninety seconds longer than “Night Fever,” FYI.)
Every karaoke night needs that one guy or girl with the gall to sing “With Or Without You” or “Brick” by Ben Folds Five. While most people are just there to drink and made obnoxious asses out of themselves, the Serious Karaoke Singers suffer from a very deep, often uncontrollable urge to express themselves through other people’s songs. For them, it’s no mere excuse to butcher the English language and major pentatonic scales simultaneously— karaoke is a serious artistic endeavor. Mumbling through Radiohead’s “No Surprises” in a drunken stupor, surrounded by my best friends in that tiny Irish pub a short twenty-four hours before flying back to downriver Michigan, is a memory I’m not liable to soon forget. None of us are talented enough to write our own music, and nobody sits around and just listens to records anymore, so karaoke is the next best thing for groups of friends who like pop music as much – if not a little bit more – than they like hard liquor. As Rob Sheffield once wrote, it’s so much easier to sing than it is to talk. New Yorkers don’t express their own feelings— we use Madonna’s. Like that one pro athlete on the team who genuinely still loves playing the game, Serious Karaoke Singers are a rare, perpetually motivated, and (perhaps) naively earnest breed.
So if you happen to find yourself standing under the hot lights of a local karaoke stage this New Year’s Eve, remember to pick a song you can still sing while inebriated, because somewhere in the back of the bar, there’s a group of pretentious dweebs laughing at you, not with you.