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.