National Competition Day 2: Defining Karaoke

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.

My view before I head out to sing on Day 2

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.

Someone goes all-out to perform Tina Turner

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.


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.

Why we sing (Singing Arkansas, #38)

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.

Coach Scott and Anthony, sporting his WKC medal.

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.

Team Arkansas!

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.

The basics: