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)
We went on an urban hike to get to the karaoke venue, making sure to stop at a different watering hole every mile to break up the exercise with decadence — not a bad way to get a 4.5-mile stroll in on a Sunday. I need to figure out how to incorporate these sorts of outings when I return to Portland (who’s in?).
By the time we arrived in downtown Denver, the lines to the clubs were long and the roof-top bars were packed. But as luck would have it, our destination was the emptiest place around. Apparently karaoke isn’t a huge draw around these parts.
The lack of crowd suits us just fine, and we continue our conversations and laid-back evening in the comfort of a cheesy faux-leather banquette. The karaoke set-up, however, implied that there are nights when things get a little crazy here. First, when I got on stage to sing my first song, I found the microphone firmly taped to the stand. Therefore, I sung with a fixed mic for the first time ever. It wasn’t as hard as I imagined; in fact I liked it quite a bit. I’ll probably give it a go again if I can figure out how to raise and lower the thing; it just happened to be at a great height here :-).
Second, there was a a commercially printed sign listing all the rules of karaoke here, including: (1) Don’t drop the mic (pretty damn difficult to do now); (2) Only put in one song at a time (the KJ said this quite a bit while we were there); (3) Duets count as a solo, and; (4) No line cuts for anyone for any reason (among those listed: showing body parts, having a great personality, a birthday, and, my personal favorite, going through a divorce). I’ve seen rule signs before, and have heard KJs run through their rules before, but this was the most extensive list I’ve witnessed.
Then one guy complained about his place in the rotation and the KJ basically called him out on it and threatened to get him tossed if he didn’t shut it; it didn’t seem like this was the first time she needed to give that lecture (He stayed). After a couple of hours the crowd grew, which was our cue to leave. Maybe the rule sheet would need to be busted out more as the night continued into a true “scene”. No matter — an evening with a childhood friend and her husband is the perfect way to experience a state; karaoke was just a bonus.
August 30th. My dear friend Roman died 21 years ago today. One friend posts Dead Flowers by the Stones on his Facebook wall in memory, and I give it a listen as I sit in my hotel room in Mineral Wells, Texas. Twenty-one years ago, we buried the CD that bears the tune at the base of a young olive tree at Stanford as a tribute to our lost friend. A friend reports that it’s now bearing fruit. When I saw it five years ago, I was surprised it was not only still alive, but thriving as it stands in anonymity; I’m not sure if we intentionally left the tree unmarked since we never asked permission to plant it on campus, or a plaque was simply an oversight on our part. Dave and I throw our stuff into the car, and make our way to see others who loved Roman, which seems only fitting, though entirely coincidental. Their uncle died unexpectedly the day before, so they warn it will be “chaos.”
We have dinner together, but previous obligations and the late night prevent them from going out to sing. We make it to another friend’s place through the horrible Austin construction traffic; an accident is slowing things down further, and I see a bloodied man being propped up by an emergency crew, a stretcher on its way. Arriving safe and sound, we cut through the wet grass of his apartment complex to get to the bar. On our way, Dave gets a text that says his mother in the hospital. I get a little panicky about what the hell is going on.
Canary Roost is large, divey, friendly, and cool; it’s great to be back where there’s no smoking inside. I’ve been tired all day, fighting allergies and/or a cold and the fresh air on the walk and the clean AC inside feel good. The KJ is flocked by regulars who hug her as they walk in as she’s setting up; she kicks off the show by announcing the drink specials, then launches into Major Tom. Throughout the night, she wanders around from table to table during songs, doing bright green shots and socializing with the patrons. People sit next to her at the controls to find a song, even giving some a pre-listen before committing to a choice. I bet I’m the only unknown person here, but that doesn’t seem to matter all that much. I’m called when it’s my turn, and kept in the rotation even when I didn’t put in a song in advance.
It only seems fitting that I sing the song I haven’t been able to even listen to yet without crying — I still miss Molly too much. It’s not a good song, but that’s not the point. It’s not really a grieving song either, but its young melodramatics allow me to belt it out with fear. This song was her song to sing when she still could, and now it’s my turn. I smile as others sing along from their tables; apparently it’s not such a bad choice for the general public after all. When I’m done, people clap as they have been for everyone, but tells me I “Nailed it” and I overhear another say it was “Haunting.” I may or may not add it to my occasional rotation. I choke up as I sit back down, but feel a bit more cleansed and whole after my emotional release. Dave’s mom texts him to say she’s OK.
I thought I was going to be able to stick around for a karaoke game where you put your name into a jar and pull out someone else’s. Then, for that person, you choose a song by a “K” artist and give it to the KJ and it will be a surprise to them until they get up on stage. However, the third round of singers grew long and I was too sleepy and drained to continue. At quarter to one, I went up to the KJ and apologized for not being able to make it for the final rotation of the night; she apologized back for all the new singers. I told her about my quest and that her show marked off state #41, and she said she was “honored” I chose her bar. A few other KJs have said something like this before; I wonder if they think I end up in a location for reasons other than convenience. As I wave goodbye, she lets me know that I would have sung Celebration by Kool and the Gang.
Location: Canary Roost, Austin, TX
Miles traveled: 456
Songs sung: Spinning Wheel (Blood, Sweat, and Tears), Wrecking Ball (Miley Cyrus), Heart of Glass (Blondie)
Before starting this trip, I knew there were karaoke contests because I’ve seen signs advertising them on bar marquees: “Karaoke Competition Tonight: Win $50!” or “Sing and win $100 every month. See inside for details.” But I didn’t know that there were serious competitions – such as the Karaoke World Championship – yet here I was, in Arkansas, meeting the Champion from 2014, Anthony Montius Magee.
We had been in touch online for a couple of months, and the flow of conversation always seemed natural. Then, when we finally met face to face, Anthony’s hug was warm and genuine, like one from a long-lost friend. The night at Little Rock was another time that someone has gone out of their way to set up a party for me – a huge act of kindness that I simply wasn’t expecting when I started this journey.
I met the rest of Team Arkansas as they came in – these were the rest of the folks that were going to be in Seattle next month for the World Finals. One of the members came in second last year. It’s clear that Anthony is proud of this group; they are his family.
Conversations that night are primarily about karaoke competitions, and how the judging works. I learn about the four criteria upon which contestants are judged –voice (being on key), technique (breathing, etc), stage presence (connecting to the audience and making it a performance), and artistry (making a song your own). I’m more than a bit curious about this because most of the contests I’ve heard about base their winners on crowd noise – clearly not a criterion for something as organized as this. As they discuss the different merits a karaoke singer needs to excel, I’m aware I do OK in the first two (the actual singing stuff), but know I lack stage presence. As far as artistry goes…I’m not sure. I think I sing to the song itself, try to conform to the original. The idea of making a song my own takes karaoke to a level I really don’t consider.
But the most important thing to consider when choosing a song for competition, Anthony says, is to choose a song you care about. Don’t try to choose based on what you think the judges would like: that is a mistake. If you choose a song for anyone other than yourself, then the song “won’t have passion, won’t have your stamp on it.” I break this rule so often (including my first song choice of the night), but it’s something I’m beginning to realize myself over this trip – karaoke is about singing what you want. I still think that mantra still needs to be within reason, however. No sense bringing a crowd down or totally changing styles. But maybe that’s part of why I choose what I do: because I want to please the crowd (I realize this is a sort of warped way of saying I choose songs for others, but I’m leaving it this way for now).
Anthony next asks what I like to sing best, and I’m somewhat hesitant to answer. People ask me that question all the time, and I still struggle with how to respond. I think it’s coming down to Stevie Nicks and Olivia Newton-John, though Donna Summer is still a hell of a lot of fun, and so is Billy Joel. I mention those to him, leaving off the one-offs of What’s Up and It’s Raining Men; I still don’t think my Somebody to Love will ever be polished enough. Anthony wants to hear Magic, Roberto, another judge, prefers Xanadu (something I sing often) – I “practice” each for a couple of seconds in the bathroom to figure which one I want to sing. I think about “getting a chance” to sing Magic which is back to the point: sing what you want when you want. I go up to the KJ and commit to the slower song I rarely do but enjoy instead of one that I consider one of my standards (though I do remember singing it poorly once at Scott’s goodbye party. At least it didn’t feel right that night). I’ve sung Magic one other time, at Amy’s bachelorette party at her request. So, in a way, this song I love I’ve never sung for me. Some other time and place, this may happen.
For now, though, I will continue to thrive in karaoke community as opposed to performance. Team Arkansas clearly has both, but if I were to chose one over the other, I will stick with the former.
We walked over to the karaoke place less than a mile away from where we ate – a Vietnamese restaurant. It was the first time in a while where I’ve been singing in a place where I would trust the ethnic food. The walk was nice after filling my belly with Bún chả; bugs louder than I’ve heard in a long time, the weather perfect. The cobblestones that make up the sidewalk in Alexandria are uneven and I wonder how many women stumble and sprain their ankles thanks to a combination of high heels and cocktails. Even in my sensible sandals, I had a hard time keeping a steady path.
We get to the bar a bit ahead of Stefanie, a friend I hadn’t seen since high school, and bit ahead of the music. The Olympics are on TV; I think about how Molly and I used to watch them together and feel a pang of sadness. Summer or Winter, there was always an open invitation to sit on her couch every night and I often took her up on it. Sometimes there were snacks, sometimes wine, sometimes both, and occasionally neither. But there was always her company and the Olympics. Always the joy of seeing winners light up, and the support of other athletes around them. During the Olympics, everyone seems to support each other. Later that night, I would have my first dream of Molly, us talking about everything and nothing all at once.
Stefanie arrives and we hug. It’s really nice to see her and I love feeling instantly relaxed around those I haven’t seen in decades; one of the benefits of this road trip is the reconnections I’ve experienced and I’m grateful for each one. The bar is large, so it looks empty but by the time the karaoke starts at 9:30, there’s a list of people ready to sing. The song choices focus on classic rock and adult contemporary. For the first time since I’ve started this journey, the singers are racially diverse, which is reflective of where we are – outside our nation’s capital, in one of the larger cities in the US.
I go up to the station to put in a song and introduce myself to Jerry, the KJ, and tell him about my journey: “You’re living the dream,” he says, and then gives me advice on where else to sing including a bar in Hollywood, CA he just came back from (Brass Monkey). He’s right, and not the first person to say this, but I’m never sure what to say when that happens. I feel guilty and embarrassed at the luxury I have to be able to do this.
I sing Walk Like and Egyptian because Dave likes that song and I think I can do it. I lose my place a couple of times during the fast-paced lyrics, but overall not too shabby – I will try again for sure and add it to my repertoire. I get high-fives as I leave the stage; one guy sort of holds my hand a little too long, though, and I need to tug free as I pass by. Stef says people at the bar were clapping along.
There are a lot of strong singers here; one of the best singers I’ve ever heard sang this night, belting out an incredible I Never Loved a Man. The woman on the stage was Aretha; you didn’t even need to close your eyes to believe it. When she was done, I went up to her and told her how amazing her voice was, and she thanked me warmly. I realized it was the first time I’ve ever gone up to someone to compliment their performance; it feels weird to do, but of course it’s appreciated. It happens to me quite often, yet somehow I’m still too shy to do it myself. Something I would like to change.
My final song is Sister Christian and I sing it while the men’s 400 meter freestyle relay is going on. I’m just as interested in the race as the rest of the bar, occasionally stumbling over the lyrics as I watch the wrong television screen as opposed to the monitor. Michael Phelps wins his nineteenth gold medal and people cheer for USA during my song. I smile, finish, and watch the replay, wishing I were on Molly’s couch.
Some nights aren’t really meant for singing, but I gotta do it because that’s what the schedule dictates. Earlier that evening, Dave and I met his long-time friends at a brew pub. It had been ten years since they’d connected and they had a lot of stories to share and times to remember; most of them were pretty raunchy. Then karaoke duty called us away as the couple drove an hour back to their house where their two kids were waiting. I was sad to see that part of the evening end, and hope it isn’t another ten years before their paths cross again.
The karaoke place smelled like fish, which made sense since it was in the back of a seafood restaurant — but still, it was over powering. The formal dining area was closed by the time we got there; we made our way to the back bar where the show was already underway. A woman wearing a college LAX hoodie and holding a Bud Light Lime was singing Black Velvet while Dave ordered a Yuengling, his go-to beer on the east coast. I settled for a club soda and lime. There was horse racing on the television. I sing a song and turn to Dave – we agree we’d rather be in the hotel room watching the Olympics. Over and out!