National Competition: Day 1

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).

Where I will spend the next three days.

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.

The man that brings joy (plus the judge who likes tater tots in the foreground).

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.