NPR Morning Edition asked its listeners, “What about America are you most thankful for?” in order to inspire its poetry segment. In response, I wrote the following on my morning commute (don’t worry, kids, I take the bus. No dangerous driving here)!
My wonderful friend and fellow author, Tracey Yokas (who I have known since elementary school! Egads!) interviewed me about my book and journey. Her questions really capture my feelings, writing process, and views of success in a way I could not have articulated without her guiding questions. Please check out our conversation here.
I hope that the launch of my book will inspire me to continue writing about karaoke, and other things that bring me joy. Thank you, readers, for your continued support.
It was a late Friday afternoon in early March, exactly one hour after I had entered my counselor’s office. She always gave me the full hour when I needed it. This time of year, I always needed it – far enough away from the holiday season that its festivities were no more than a concept and far enough away from Portland spring that we all knew it would be months before we could rely on the sun shining. Only this year I needed her time more than usual.
Things were shifting. Dave still hadn’t found a job and his mother was started to lose weight, barely tipping the scale fifteen pounds lower than what her doctor recommended. When she got back home, she set the microwave for thirty minutes so that her ice cream would soften. Dave and I woke up one Saturday morning, dark from the overcast sky, and he declared his intention to move back Sacramento.
My therapist quizzed me about all the symptoms of depression and I passed with flying colors –I slept and ate too much, was irritable, couldn’t focus on anything, and had lost joy in anything I did. I told her that while I could distract myself with work and exercise, as soon as I stopped and sat still, the emptiness returned. Baseline was a stone heart my soul tried to fill with surrender. Nothing I tried held off the depression for longer than the time I invested in the task. I believed I was telling the truth but was lucky enough to discover I wasn’t.
Seven blocks down the street from my counselor’s office I entered my second therapy location. I had wanted to try the new karaoke bar with its unique set up for some time, and this was the day I committed to doing so. Since karaoke is typically available at night, I wasn’t doing much of it lately, unable to leave my house once the dark settled in. The Capitol was different; past the brightly-lit cocktail lounge with its pristine glass wall of bottles perfectly sorted into an alcoholic rainbow, was an unmarked door painted black. Behind it was a room lined with a bank of vinyl seats, two monitors on opposite walls, and a remote control to operate the karaoke machine. As long as the bar was open, anyone could hand over their ID and credit card to receive a microphone or two and start singing.
People could come and go as they pleased; the room was not available to reserve. Instead, you sang with whomever entered the space, entered a song into the queue via cell phone or remote, and took the mic. At first, I was alone. The revolving green dance lights and disco ball were completely out of place in my solitude. For the first time in a while, I felt awkward taking the microphone and choosing a song; I didn’t see the point of singing, mostly because I wasn’t seeing the point in anything.
I sat in the corner and punched in Olivia Newton John’s Magic deciding its haunting, soothing tones were a good match for the moment. I thought about how I sang this song in Arkansas when encouraged to sing my passion. Within a few bars, I felt the warmth of song fill me like a Buddhist breath. I was healing.
Moments after I finished a group of four women came in and looked a bit surprised they didn’t have the place to themselves. I smiled meekly and introduced myself, doing my best to let them know I was going to do my best not to ruin their party. An extroverted one shook my hand, then punched in her first selection: Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, a song I sang three times while on my journey, tied for the most frequent song choice, a quintessential karaoke tune no matter where you are. A friend of hers grabbed the other mic and joined in.
When it was my turn, I re-learned that nothing feeds my soul more than singing Tainted Love to an intimate room full of strangers. Soon the space filled with more of their group and a couple my friends. Our two parties melded together. Microphones were shared, song choices were lauded, and everyone sang along. Words of encouragement were everywhere:
“You got this”
“Of course you can sing that!”
“Oh! I LOVE this song!”
I learned I was among a group of elementary school teachers, there to celebrate the birthday of one and to honor all. It was two short weeks after the shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida that left 17 dead. Songs such as Give Me One Reason and Hold On were dedicated to teachers everywhere. I choked up listening to the off-key rendition of the Wilson Phillips classic:
Don’t you know things can change
Things’ll go your way
If you hold on for one more day
Can you hold on for one more day
Our small crowd started dancing when a young teacher picked up the microphone and sang Faith. Her short hair and stature, rounded features, and red plastic glasses betrayed the bravado in her voice. With one hand holding the mic, she let the other sway over her head as she spun around, jumping to the beat. One of her older colleagues with grey hair and a short flouncy skirt leaned in to yell in my ear,
“That one there? She never sang before so I took her last month for her first time. She’s never been the same since.”
I have a healthy breakfast with a dose of care. Waking up in a friend’s house, she long gone to work, fresh purple towels placed on the vanity for me (my favorite color!). I debate showering, but want to shave my legs. I start sitting on the side of the tub, but then slowly let the water fill a bit higher and then slide into a half-filled tub and think about my song today. I sing a part of it and start to tear up: “Twenty-five years and my life is still/ Trying to get up that great big hill of hope/ For a destination.” I like it. This is the song that has my passion behind it. I’m pondering inserting a political comment on the end, but won’t be sure if it’s the right thing to do until it’s time.
I put on an $8 thrift store dress that hasn’t been washed and it smells a bit musty. I decide that turquoise earrings and red boots are fine together, but bring a different pair of earrings, just in case. I go bare-legged and think my figure isn’t all that bad in this tight-fitting outfit; it’s one of the first times I haven’t cringed at my body in months, if not years. Though I do wish my hair was a little more… something. I’m ready to go except for extra mascara and lipstick.
I stare out the floor-to-ceiling window and admire the 21-story view of the Sound that reminds me of my privilege. Right now, in the safety of my friend’s apartment, I feel safe enough to just bring my song to the judges hard and leave it all on the table. This is what Anthony – 2014 World Karaoke Champion and my friend – means about the passion needed to sing at the National level. I try not to think about the third round, because chances are there won’t be a third round for me. If there is, I’m totally screwed.
I check my Facebook and see a friend has posted a video of “the darkest day in karaoke history” on my page. It’s awful, and I struggle to listen to the whole thing. But, in many ways, THIS is what karaoke is about more than any contest – a family getting together to share a memory, to reach each other. I fix my hair one more time and walk to the venue.
Once again, people are milling about outside the bar, smoking, dressed and ready to go. I feel a little better about my wardrobe choice, but not my much; people compliment my boots. They are pretty awesome. People talk about theater backgrounds and how they are shaped by them – the costumes, makeup – all of it helps them transform into the song. I don’t want to admit I have a theater background, too, for I don’t use those tools to transform. I simply don’t see karaoke as performance. I go inside, feeling isolated from the conversation.
It’s a lot colder today so sitting near the open front of the door isn’t the best idea, but small tables are few and far between, so I keep my spot. The competition finally begins at 11:15 (10:30 was the goal). The first up for the day sings beautifully, but too soft in places. His voice breaks and his nerves show. Loud cheers come from his team as he sings. It must be nice to have that support; I felt none as someone who came alone. The next singer performs and sounds strained. It turns out he sang it in the wrong key so he gets a redo. The crowd cheers. The host reminds all of us to stop the song as soon as you notice something is wrong. Another sings Prince, while undressing; the performance is clumsy and I cringe a little. There are several songs in a row that rely on costumes, gimmicks, and choreography. To me, too much performance took away from the heart of these songs and voices, but the performers all seem pleased as they step off the stage and hug their supporters. I love their positive energy – I don’t have it at all. Who over-performs and who is right on? A wrecked clown sings My Way, and I think that’s right on; or perhaps I just identify with the interpretation a little too much. We hear the song redo and its simplicity is breath-taking this time around. Then a man sings Luther Vandross equally genuine, followed by a passionate rendition of Summertime. I like these performances the best. The perfect balance of authenticity and performance.
I put my “Fuck Fear” button on that I got while singing in Atlanta and get ready for my turn; I wish I had a “Black Lives Matter” button, but this will have to do. I sing and I feel I did better this time around. I sang as best as I could, though I was shaking more than I ever had. I felt angry, frustrated; I put myself and my feelings into that song. “And I pray, oh my god do I pray/ I pray every single day/ For a revolution.” I struggled to not choke up as images of Terence Crutcher – the latest victim among so many – flash in my mind. “What’s Going On?” Still, no one greets me as I step off the stage. Few come up to me afterwards to offer words of encouragement. My best simply isn’t good enough, and I feel OK about that.
I leave after Group C is complete and my friend is home from work. I leave with more questions than ever: When is a performance no longer karaoke? Is Ave Maria a legitimate karaoke choice (I mean, can you imagine singing that in a local dive bar)? Why do costumes make for a better performance, or do they? What happened to the idea that karaoke is a shared experience? To me, individual interpretations of songs take away from a sense of community and a past we can all relate to. And I can’t help but think that’s one of the essential components of karaoke; without it, the performances are transformed into something beautiful, but something else beyond the shared experience of song.
The morning of the competition and the first day of fall. It’s time for the National Finals of the Karaoke World Championships. My throat is scratchy from screaming at the meet and greet last night (it was so loud in there it was hard to have any sort of conversation), so I have Good Earth tea with honey. My friend and I each have a boiled egg and a banana that I brought from home. I shower and notice all my grey – maybe I should have had my hair done. I put on way too much makeup for the day and also the outfit I’ve been planning – an 80s earthy green top with flowing sleeves, black bamboo leggings, and knee-high black boots; I try to look like a rock star. I sort of look like one, but I also look like I’m shopped at Chicos. I care but I don’t care. I’m a little nervous, but not really. My Uber ride arrives and drops me off at the bar we were at last night. I don’t sing until Group B (1-3pm), but sitting in an empty house will drive me crazy and I also want to watch others. I’m here for the whole thing, not just my time.
Others are already standing around outside and I feel the tension and nerves. One guy is pissed off because they won’t let him bring food into the bar, yet they aren’t serving any yet; he storms around, yelling his story to whomever is listening. He shows a badge in his wallet and claims to be a Sergeant and won’t put up with bullshit – I wonder if it’s real; his intensity sure is, but I can also see him being the kind of guy who pulls these sort of jokes/facades if they serve him well (I find out later he is, indeed, a Sergeant along with a former backup singer for Al Green).
Attire ranges from t-shirts and camo shorts to purple sequined jackets to ball gowns. Dresses to jeans. I see Mr. Sparkles and the guy who sang Elton John’s Spanish Harlem from the night before; his pants don’t button quite right and I feel bad for him. All of Team Arkansas is here. They travel as a team, support each other as a team, so they will be here together all day, every day says one member. He’s ex-military and now a nurse, soft but hard — a true solid Provider and rock on his team.
10:30 and they haven’t started yet. 10:37 is a kick off song to test the sound system. I assume it’s good, but I honestly can’t tell the difference between a good one and a not-so-good one. I learned that in Kansas City, where the people I hung out with were beaming about the system, and I felt it was just like any other one in any other state. Now, my palms are actually a bit sweaty; I’ve never had clammy palms before and it makes me very self-conscious as I shake hands with the new people I meet at every turn. My manic excitement shows as I chat with Moses from Chicago, who’s dressed in an elegant black pin-striped suit. I really didn’t prepare for this. We both seem to be talking about nothing, two people meeting and saying things just to get out the nervous energy. 11:07 and we still haven’t started. I see Elton John and his fly is down, his clothes are ill-fitting which stands out even more in this crowd, where everyone is so polished. I want to know his story.
I see the guy who sang Michael Jackson last night dressed like the King of Pop today. I see Elton go by again, and his fly is up so I don’t have to pain myself with my inner debate over whether or not to tell him. However, now I see his shirt is ripped in the back and my heart breaks a little all over again; I’m rooting hard for a guy I don’t even know. Nothing he can do about the shirt tear, though, so I keep quiet about it. I don’t want to spoil his confidence; he looks so happy and excited to be here.
The host finally gets on the stage to give everyone a welcoming pep talk: “Enjoy the stage, enjoy the spotlight.” I think about that for a second. While I do enjoy singing, and I do enjoy the stage, for some reason, I stop at finding the spotlight desirable. The smell of weed comes pouring into the venue. I inhale deeply, slowly, and relax a little. Chicago tells me I should write a critique book of all the places I’ve been. He would buy such a book; I don’t press further, but do wonder at the utility of a book that has one karaoke venue per state in it. What sort of guide is that?
It’s Elton’s, turn and he gets on the stage as the host announces his song choice: Sex Machine by James Brown. Elton sings the first few lines then tears off his outer clothing layer – the one so ill-fitting – to reveal a gold, low-cut unitard. The clothes I fretted about so much were no more than a prop. The crowd goes nuts, and I feel tears of relief and happiness come; it’s the first time I’ve felt joy since getting here.
My time slot approaches and now I’m really nervous. Everyone is fantastic. I see no woman I could beat. I feel better knowing this – like the USA hockey team in the World Cup, you’re out of the tournament, but you still gotta play the games.
Group A is done, and it’s time for a break. People go outside to smoke – how can such serious singers be such serious smokers? A group provokes a homeless man who was photo bombing their pictures. It becomes a bit of a turf war and my nerves kick up again. I go inside to remove myself from the confrontation. I order tater tots because I realize I need something to balance out the gin and tonics. I’m slightly buzzed, enough to take an edge off, and also hungry. I share them with Elton, and some other random guy who I learn is a judge; I pegged him as a singer instead, given his blue shiny jacket – it turns out he’s a Vegas performer. A woman has changed into a gown worthy of the Oscars. I’m so under-prepared I almost feel ashamed. At this point, I just don’t want to embarrass myself. All the singers have pipes, the trick is knowing how to play them. Some are spot on, but some seem to overplay them a little, but who am I to judge?
Group B begins and my nerves, after a small break, kick up again. I’m not really nervous that I’ll mess up, though. I just have a lot of adrenaline. And I know out of the four categories – voice quality, technique, artistry, and stage presence – I have the first two down at best. I smell the weed again and relax. An old man, here to watch his son, spills his food all over the floor as a young woman from Pennsylvania sings Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me. This song is normally the death of a karaoke night, but not here; she brings her own style to it, and it’s simply beautiful; it’s the first time I’ve ever been sorry that song was over. This seems to be the case for all the songs chosen. The basic rules of karaoke don’t apply.
The Provider sings the same, haunting song that he sang when I first met him and it’s much improved; it was great the first time, but it has much more dimension now. I tell him, and he says he’s been working hard on it.
I’m up third in the queue – they only let the singers know when it’s their turns three to give at a time –and start burping tater tots. Great. I post on my personal and the MelOdyssey Facebook page, letting my friends know it’s almost time to tune into the live stream. I text Dave, who says the feed isn’t working right, which is OK by me — I am just touched by the support. My name is called and I go up. The host does his best to calm my obvious nerves by having me talk about my trip; I mention that I have indeed sung in all 48 continental states and that it took me 17,700 miles to do it. Then it’s time to sing; I don’t really want to. The monitors scattered everywhere make it easy to look in any direction without losing my place. I do my best, and try to use the stage, connect with people in the audience, face the judges, smile, look like I’m having fun. I’m not sure if I am. I guess it’s fun, but it’s a different kind of fun, less silly, more of a challenge. I really don’t think of karaoke as a challenge. I guess I’m feeling the competition aspect more than I want to.
I go back to my table and Chicago comes up to congratulate me. Now we are both done. He’s drinking a Corona, clearly on the other side of his day. I meet the group from Oregon who came in late and bond with one of the singers; we talk about race relations and stereotypes, about how he was displaced out of Portland where he grew up and now lives in Aloha. I’m more myself, feeling more comfortable talking about tough issues with a stranger than trying to be “all that” on stage. Very few come up to me after I sing the way they do not just to their own team members, but to others as well. Was I that bad, or not bad at all? Or perhaps I’m just not in the “in” crowd. I start to feel bad.
It’s time for Group C and the sparkly dresses come out. No way could I be a judge – everyone seems deserving. A few, maybe, I can see as “no” (including me), but none for sure in the “yes” column – or, more accurately, there are simply too many in my book. A judge claps in the middle of someone’s song – because she was that good, or because he thought the song was over? My self-confidence dwindles. It’s time to leave. I know how good everyone is and I don’t need to stick around for the rest of this group and the next to know I’m cooked. Pot smoke wafts through the air on my peaceful walk to my friend’s house. When I arrive, we hug hello and get down to the business of watching football. Now I’m really where I should be.
I did it. I have officially sung karaoke in the 48 continental states. Being a researcher, of course, I feel the need to provide you with some data about my trip. Well, here it is:
Miles traveled: 17,774
States visited: 48
Provinces visited: 2 (Ontario and Quebec; I only sang in the former)
Number of days on the road: 99
Number of nights alone in a hotel: 17
Number of friends who let me crash at their place: 17
Number of karaoke venues: 53 (the 48 states, plus an extra in ID, LA and IL, plus Toronto and DC).
Number of times I sang: 129
Most common artist: Blondie (11 times, 5 different songs), followed by Fleetwood Mac (8 times, 4 different songs)
Most common song: Dreams (Fleetwood Mac) and Heart of Glass (Blondie) each done 4 times.
Number of different songs sung: 104
I sang in dive bars, strip mall bars, college bars, dedicated karaoke bars (but never in a private room, gay bars, an Eagle’s Lodge, an American Legion, and outdoors twice. I sang to a live band (Utah) and a church organ (Georgia). I sang in cities, rural areas, tourist towns, and suburbs.
As time goes on, I’m going to gather my thoughts about my experiences singing, driving across the country, and life in general. Since I spent most of the journey avoiding interstates, and spent most of my time in local hangouts, drinking local beer where possible, I feel like I’ve gained a larger understanding of this country. It’s by no means complete, nor could it ever be. But this trip has taught me a lot about a lot. I look forward to processing it and sharing it with you.
If you have any questions about the trip or want to hear about anything, leave me a comment or message me! Thanks for sharing my journey with me so far.
The crowd at The Distillery, a place where Dave used to go for drinks after work, was small and uninspiring. A few of our friends showed up to hang out, cheer me on, and see their friend who’d been gone not quite a year. I was more excited and anxious than I thought I would be, nervous that somehow my name wouldn’t get called and I wouldn’t get to sing and my quest would not be completed. But my name did get called and I did sing. My quest was completed. I felt a small rush of disbelief, which quickly faded into nothing, perhaps a sense of normalcy. I sang one more song that evening, but really the night was just about hanging out in a bar with friends. We left when I was only two songs away of being called up a third time, but I was done singing for the night. It was time to move on.
Location: The Distillery, Sacramento, CA
Miles traveled: 621
Songs sung: Don’t Get Me Wrong (The Pretenders), Last Dance (Donna Summer)