karaoke n. a form of entertainment, offered typically by bars and clubs, in which people take turns singing popular songs into a microphone over prerecorded backing tracks.
Origin: 1970’s – from Japanese, literally “empty orchestra”
I’ve been derelict and it’s been over a month since I have graced the WordPress pages with my prose. But, alas, I have been thinking for quite some time about this post. It has been a long time coming and because I shared this idea with my loving husband after dinner I had no choice but to rip myself from the persistent grip of trash television, come upstairs to my desk and write about the magic that karaoke has brought to my life. If you’re a smart karaok- er, you will steal some of these legendary tunes and make them your own. They are karaoke GOLD.
When I sat down and thought about it (on the NJ Transit train home from work) I realized that karaoke has been a marker throughout my life for a very long time. As a now working mom who has spent the past month getting through coronaviruses and ear tube surgery, I really need a source of joy and happiness sometimes…a little infusion of goofy, giddiness…and my memories of the songs and moments of my karaoke life provide that…let me take you on my dork journey.
It all started with a little place called the Lith Club…or the Lithuanian Club of Providence, RI to be exact. I think the first place that I really started getting “into” karaoke was back in the day when we lived in Lil Rhody. To be honest, my husband really frequented this place and I went there a few times and complained about the smoke. This was (and maybe still is) one of the last places that you could smoke in a bar – because it was a social club and not an actual bar – and once a week they would fire up the 1985 Panasonic big screen TV (the kind that was huge and had a bad, grainy picture) to scroll the words to various songs for karaoke night. Various overweight, ethnically diverse individuals would gather together as a motley crew to belt out Mariah Carey and Boys to Men tunes while downing pitchers of cheap beer and chain smoking. It was sort of a little bit wonderful…and this was one of the songs that I remember well as the centerpiece of those evenings…a great karaoke duet if ever there was one and a tribute to my Teaneck, NJ roots…
In those early years of karaoke childhood, we were blessed to have a friend named Matt who had a strange ritual of choosing Dennis Leary’s “Asshole” for his personal karaoke tune. Every bar we went to, whether it be Muldowney’s or Lith Club, it was Matt’s ritual to own this song for a few minutes of the night…and he always brought it…people really loved it and it was mostly because he knew it by heart and he sang it with a sincerity that is rare in a sub 70 year old. Looking back, I feel awful for making him choose “Jenny From the Block” one evening – in which he channeled some strange Storage Wars auctioneer voice to sing. His talents were clearly meant for “Asshole”, although I hear he pulled off quite the rendition of “Good Ship Lollipop” at my husband’s bachelor party…anyway, this one’s for Matt Bechtel…a karaoke pioneer and a man who knew that the secret to good karaoke is owning the hell out of your chosen song.
The “asshole” experience frequently happened at Muldowney’s in Providence, but so many other great moments happened there as well. If you stop by Empire street in Providence these days, Muldowneys is all spiffed up and pretty. They still have karaoke there but in my opinion it was better when it was dark, stinky, and sketchy. It added a certain mystery to the whole, tawdry ritual. One of the best moments in karaoke history occurred there when I witnessed a man named Forbes, whom I had met only once (a husband’s friend of a friend), with an amazing ?uestlove afro (complete with afro pick) , sang the hell out of this song – and had every female in the place in his back pocket. I think only of this man when I hear this song. It sends chills down my spine…this man was a legend. Runner up to Forbes’ rendition of this song is “Rebel Yell” by Billy Idol which I saw someone else perform that very magical evening and would choose as my signature song if I was way cooler and way more confident than I actually am.
One of the most terrifying and life altering experiences of my early twenties came when I got the “Big Deal” job and had to travel to China for 2 weeks as a Product Manager. I was still living in Rhode Island at this point and traveled to Hong Kong/China just 5 days into this new gig. I was on a full 2 days of no sleep, completely shell shocked because nothing I read or heard was in the English language and my food was still alive (sometimes)…and then I stepped into the lobby of the Hong Kong Marriott Renaissance Hotel, Kowloon – and heard this song being butchered by Cambodian professional karaoke singers…imagine all of the L’s being sung as R’s…strangely comforting and soothing don’t you think? I listen to it in the morning on my walk into work a lot…
Providence provided us with karaoke heaven for awhile until we up and moved to Brooklyn, NY and didn’t really find a real niche until discovering Ceol in Cobble Hill. Once we found out there was karaoke, we felt the strange and exotic pull of this Irish pub serving Guinness and belt out your lungs pleasure on Saturday nights. One evening I witnessed a very small white girl bring down the house with an amazing rendition of “Gangster’s Paradise”. People were silent in awe of this girl. I wanted to be that girl. If you’re a small, white girl and have had enough to drink – choose this song. It was an amazing moment in karaoke history. That same evening, my brother in-law gained an enormous bar tab and legitimate Kevin Reed fan base by owning “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga. I sang it as a duet with him, but clearly he was the star. I’d like to think this launched his career as a successful artist and famed bartender in Bed Stuy…But alas, the moment that makes me the most proud was finding karaoke synergy with my husband / soulmate in the form of a duet by June & Johnny…a pair of dorky lovebirds celebrating their 10 year wedding anniversary this weekend, I still love singing this song with him…
The Japanese of the 1970’s may have thought this word meant “empty orchestra,” but I severely beg to differ. It is anything but empty. Perhaps it is because karaoke is such a minor, creative moment – a simple enjoyment – we really surrender ourselves to it and thus it becomes more special and profound than we could have dreamed. When you stand up there with the microphone and belt your heart out, you’re vulnerable – but completely free…and if someone out there in the audience things it’s amazing, then all of a sudden you are a rock star for that 3 minutes…and it feels wonderful, giddy and amazing. Karaoke is not empty. In a way, it’s one of the purest forms of happiness. That 3 minutes of fame where all is right with the world even though you are at your most dorky, vulnerable state.