The Pleasures of Karaoke

There were anomalies, too, people who could go professional were they so inclined. One gentleman, an occasional visitor wearing a Trilby tilted at a saucy angle and waving a white scarf with a showman’s aplomb, did a perfect nightclub Sinatra. (“Cock your hat—angles are attitudes,” said Sinatra.) A young woman could have auditioned for Andrew Lloyd Weber. A factory worker in his late thirties or early forties would have put Jerry Lee Lewis to shame with his version of “Great Balls of Fire.”

Although pitch-deafness and cracked falsettos were not uncommon, they scarcely mattered except in extremis. What counted were mutual enjoyment and communal tolerance as the participants performed their individual covers, giving the songs their own unique stamp and vocal idiosyncrasies. I am put in mind of an article in ScienceDaily about the tuneful behavior of Australian pied butcherbirds which, according to the experts, “play around with their tunes, balancing repetition and variation” and “balance their performance to keep it in the sweet spot between boredom and confusion.” Sometimes the karaoke spot is sweet, sometimes not so sweet, but it’s always genuine.

Ultimately, one never knows what will emerge. One of my new friends sings every song as if it were part of an extended liturgical medley, a kind of cantus planus or monophonic chant. There’s an incantatory similarity in his delivery, whether he is rendering George Jones’ “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair,” Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition” or Brooks and Dunn’s Boot Scootin Boogie, everything considered, an astonishingly proprietary feat. Each song is definitely his own. Surprises are always in store. In a karaoke contest (including a “Suicide Karaoke” component), a winning performance may meet with general incredulity, ascribing the verdict to personal sympathy, a split vote, an audience of claquers, or special dispensation from the karaoke gods. Nevertheless, one smiles and applauds. After all, as Brian Raftery remarks in Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life, “Underneath all the social barriers like headphones and iPods, we’re just a world of singing fools.”