Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle We Are the Stars

By Kim Mellen

JANUARY 4, 1999:  There is a legend of a karaoke bar somewhere in East Texas that has a Gong Show-style setup in which the bartender can gong the really toe-curling, butt-cringing bad singers off the stage. One man began to mangle "Hotel California," and the bartender chimed in with his party-pooping death knell. The man, not getting it, kept singing. The bartender banged again. A few audience members saw what was going on, and began to sing along. Loudly. Soon the whole bar joined in, drowning out the repeated gongs from the naysaying bartender. Moral of the story? Well, yes, weird things happen when the Eagles are involved in any way; but the real lesson here is that karaoke is all about respect.

This is only a legend because institutionalized jeering is unheard of within the karaoke community -- ask anyone. Granted, karaoke has its detractors. It's not a legitimate musical form, the complaint goes. It's too cheesy. Too scary.

"Why would anyone want to listen to bad songs sung badly?" These people whine. "As if."

This is the first and last time these concerns will be addressed: Karaoke is not only not an insidious scourge upon the arts -- an embarrassment to the embarrassments of musical history -- to the growing international army of Just Plain Folk who revere it, karaoke is a great equalizer, a chance to be a star, if only for three minutes. For them -- for us -- karaoke is everything that music should be, and our devotion is almost religious in nature.

"My higher power is people singing in unison," muses Bruce, karaoke host and owner of Barnstormers, a studio-store that also rents karaoke equipment with or without attendant hosts. Nothing, he contends, matches the power of karaoke when it comes to bringing people together. He's hosted shows at kicker bars -- "the kind of places cowboys go to look for fights" -- but once he turns on the machine, "It's peace in the valley." It gets punk kids, war vets, and rich golfer-types, the whole gamut of races and classes, to make idiots of themselves ... together. Groups who begin the evening on opposite sides of the bar are soon one big conga-lining, stage-diving, dueting melee. "It's a beautiful thing," he insists.

Austin's hands-down karaoke Mecca, the Common Interest, truly lives up to its vaguely utopian name: Of all the karaoke venues in town, it has the least definable crowd. There are black, white, and brown people, gay and straight people, junior and senior citizens. What, though, do the words "The Common Interest" mean to the people who run it and live it? The object of their desire can't be just karaoke; the Interest's original incarnation -- over two decades ago on Medical Parkway -- was a piano bar (which, arguably, is a close cousin of the karaoke experience). Whatever it is: singing, drunkenness, sex, it's open to poetic interpretation. "It's a place where anyone can feel like a star," Karaoke Jockey (or KJ) Michael Koury postulates. "People tend to love the applause and affection from the crowd. People that need attention come in here because the audience is usually very nice, and if they're not I throw them out." Koury began his employment at the Interest as bouncer, so be nice. The KJ manager Mike Stevens also waxes sentimental, likening his realm and the barflies within to Cheers. "We have a very strong family relationship here. Through all the booze and egos, we all really love each other." Incidentally, there's a gay bar in Houston also called the Common Interest, so the CI in Austin gets many inquiries as to whether there's an association. There isn't, says Stevens, but the Austin Common Interest is gay-friendly. But the real question here, of course, is: Are those queens in Houston karaoke-friendly?


The Song Remains the Same?

An etymological moment: The word "karaoke" (Japanese, of course) takes the "kara" part from karappo, meaning empty, and "oke" from okesutura, or orchestra. The legend of the advent of the empty orchestra more than 20 years ago, tossed around on many a translated-from-Japanese Web site, begins with a strolling guitarist who had a regular gig at a Kobe snack bar. The owner kept tapes of the guitar accompaniment, which he put on when the musician couldn't come in. The patrons enjoyed singing along to them. Little did these Kobeans know that this modest "completion" of the empty six-string would send shockwaves throughout the world more far-reaching and enduring than their city's 1995 earthquake. Throw in the CD revolution of the Eighties, with the all-important ability to skip instantly between tracks, and boom: an industry.

The Japanese are not afraid to party, nor are they afraid to sing, according to Karaoke Scene online magazine (http://www.karaokescene.com). A tradition of solo singing at gatherings made the Japanese easy conduits for the fervent spread of this new technology. "It has never mattered whether the person sings well or not. Even if he sings out of tune, it can spark laughter and make the party more lively. The Japanese are generous when they listen to other people sing, and can easily sing in front of others without feeling reluctance. ... For corporate soldiers living in a stressful society, there is no other entertainment that can make them feel so refreshed." Karaoke indeed began as wholesome entertainment for businessmen, but quickly became popular among all sectors of society and spread to the far reaches of the globe. Along the way the format has evolved from cassettes and CDs with only the musical accompaniment, to CDs with still graphics (CD+Gs) and scrolling lyrics, to laser discs with all that plus full-motion videos.

How a song gets from a gleam in the musician's eye to a karaoke laserdisc is as convoluted as anything in the music business. The elementary version: First, the publisher makes his deal with the songwriter for the publishing rights. Included in these publishing rights is sheet music, video rights, "a whole slew of rights that normal people would not think about," explains Barnstormer Bruce. "What's happened in the last 10 years is there's been a karaoke right: the right to display the words on the screen, the right to re-record the song, and limited use of that rendition." Producers of karaoke pay the publishing companies for this package of rights to re-create the songs or alter original tracks, to put them into different keys and such. Although you can buy stereos that turn down the vocals of original songs for a home-baked version of karaoke, this is not the case with legitimate karaoke, in which the original artists' tracks are never used.

In the flurry of publishing rights, most artists don't even know their songs are being karaokified -- they'd never imagine their songs would be used to that end. This brings up the ethical questions of karaokification (if I may be so morphologicially bold), but really, we're talking the music industry here. "If they have Jimi Hendrix doing Nike commercials ... is that more of a bastardization?" Bruce asks. "I think it is."

Nonetheless, some artists (or the owners of their catalog) withhold the so-called "karaoke rights," among them Paul Simon and Bob Seger. "They also happen to be artists that have a lot of integrity," Bruce submits, only half-jokingly. And if you see songs off of, for instance, the Beatles' White Album, "The word is that it's coming from Mexico. It's illegal, but they're still out there."

Sometimes, too, the rights can be withdrawn, halting any further empty orchestration of the artists' catalog, as is the case with our friends the Eagles. Songs that have already been committed to disk and disseminated throughout the lonely-hearts bars of the world can't be recalled in any sort of practical manner. This, along with the karaoke's version of bootlegging, creates a sort of black market in the largely innocent world of karaoke trading, fueled in part by demands for hard-to-get or out-of-print collections and certain versions of songs ("Delta Dawn" as done by Bette Midler instead of Helen Reddy, for instance, or the full vs. abridged versions of Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?").

And just like the business behind karaoke, being a Karaoke Jockey, or KJ, is more complicated than simply changing discs, explain Debbie and Dennis Saiki, owners of Laser Entertainment Techsys, a local company that rents machines (with or without accompanying KJs) for home parties and supplies a number of local venues with equipment. As the evening begins, the KJ typically has to deal with crowd apathy and shyness; the buzz of the speakers punctuated only by a number or two sung by the KJ. "My husband comes with me a lot, and other relatives, so if nobody else is singing, I at least have some backups and it's not just me," says Pam Spencer of Absolutely Awesome Karaoke, a mobile KJ business. "We entice, threaten, start contests to pay off bar tabs." As the celebration progresses, the KJ has to sort through an increasing deluge of requests and try to stick with an equal-opportunity rotation, often fending off impatient drunks eager to sing.

So is there any chance of currying favor with your hired host to get your song bumped up in rotation, say by brandishing a little cash money? "None. Forget it," insists the Common Interest's KJ Mike Stevens. He claims to have turned down $100 bribes and a suspicious plea from a doctor who said his pager had just summoned him to go deliver a baby. Greasing palms doesn't fly, at least at the Common Interest. "Tipping is nice, but it doesn't bump your song up here! We have a certain rotation to follow so that new singers take precedence over previous singers," KJ Koury, ever the diplomat, explains. Nor will a request for a song a particular KJ strongly likes or dislikes effect your place in line.

Koury likes "That's Life," "Mack the Knife," and "Waterfalls." Stevens has a soft spot for "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" by Elton John. Koury grimaces at Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the B-52's "Love Shack," and Stevens' turn-offs are simple: "Any country." Citing the crowd's love for these particular songs, though, Koury said he didn't mind them too much. Spencer dislikes Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition" and David Allen Coe's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name," and likes "anything sung by someone who can actually carry a note." Then there are the songs that ought be reserved for the truly talented, songs the KJs frequently cited as being over most vocalists' heads: "New York, New York," R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It," and Young M.C.'s "Bust a Move." If you think you're up to snuff, then maybe you're ready for the glorious, authentic Pacific Rim karaoke experience.


Two Tickets to Paradise

Karaoke Paradise is an irony-free popular hangout for Korean students. The night we went, judging from the crowd singalongs to the Korean pop songs, my group and I were the only American natives. I recommend the place just for the little bit of nightlife culture-shock awaiting inside the easily overlooked San Jacinto bar. Witness shots being chased with milk, taste the best popcorn ever, warm and buttery!

Where the Common Interest is all about football decor, the Paradise is an Eighties New Wave palace: The posters aren't Nagels, but they have the same noseless eyeshadow-and-lipsticky female face-thing going on. There are beer mirrors and blacklights, and one of those shimmery moving-waterfall signs (Kim Phung has the same one). There's a KJ, but the at-bat and on-deck performer is never announced; the next six songs are displayed by number at the top of the TV screens. They have a CD+G system instead of the fancier laserdiscs: Images of trees, temples, and gazelles fade in and out to the strains of Korean rap. Pretty! When the song comes to an instrumental break a little biplane flies across the screen trailing a banner that says "Interlude," and a cool drum roll plays between numbers. The choices are all Korean, except for a few pages listing "American Favorite Songs"; the selection of these is delightful. There's "Last Christmas" by Wham!, for instance, Santana's "Black Magic Woman" and Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly," too. Next to the song titles in the books is the first line of the lyrics, a nice touch to stir recognition: I shudder to think of how many crowd-pleasers have been passed over because the song title isn't instantly recognizable or for fear of not knowing the lyrics except for the chorus. The Korean kids do an occasional English song, but all the Korean songs start out sounding vaguely like an American Favorite Song until the words kick in. Everyone sounds great here: lots of the patrons had quite a set of pipes, for sure, but the microphones are turned way down and the echo way up, masking less accomplished voices -- a plus for first-timers.

Later, without announcement, the karaoke seamlessly morphed into a set of dance music, and all of a sudden we -- and one guy at the next table who was hunched over looking like he was about to puke -- were the only people not up onstage dancing. Then the pukey guy bounded up there too. The karaoke numbers kept rotating, though; we watched the lyrics to Lionel Richie's "Hello" float across the screen as everyone freaked to techno. The spectacle ended as suddenly as it began, and the karaoke started up again just in time for our songs, quelling any conspiracy theories we might have been cooking up.


What a Feeling

Of the many bars, restaurants, and hotels offering karaoke nights, Eastside taqueria Pato's Tacos Saturday nights are quite popular. The crowd is made up of two primary groups: regulars, and diners who look like they stumbled into this involuntarily and are either observing the scene with anthropological interest or wolfing down their tacos with their eyes on the door, plotting their hasty exit. The regulars are a force to be reckoned with. They are very insular, turning in amongst themselves and their cigarettes and wine 'ritas and all but ignoring unfamiliar faces. The KJ, Edie Castillo, made the rounds of the tables, and hugs abounded.

Not that this difficult-to-penetrate atmosphere is necessarily bad: It's a good stage for the deflowering of a karaoke virgin, and the wait is far shorter here than at most places. Maybe it just takes the right song to pull everyone together, though: When a non-regular singer, a would-be Irene Cara, sang "Flashdance (What a Feeling)," some young male regulars lined up in front of the stage and danced the cabbage patch and the running man. Now that's what I call love, karaoke style.


Life Is a Cabaret

A good karaoke session will always have jaw-dropping performances, honest-to-god homages to irony-proof classics. A good karaoke session can put you back in touch with all kinds of songs you didn't realize you knew until you heard them anew, from wacky Sixties psychedelia to Eighties power ballads. A good karaoke session might make you ponder the analogy: Toto is to "Africa" as Asia is to "_____," or long for the days of Laura Branigan and Sylvia (of "Nobody" one-hit wonderdom). Much joy can be had when modern bands that people with taste find unacceptable, like the Cranberries, are given a satisfying twist by being immortalized in karaoke. Bless the karaokers, because in their hearts and imaginations are where bands like Journey, Foreigner, R.E.O. Speedwagon, and Genesis continue a robust career. And where else but a karaoke bar will you hear someone utter, "I'd like to do a Bread song someday, but I don't think I'm emotionally ready."

And that's just part of the assault on your senses. Karaoke accompaniment videos, too, are high art. Where MTV videos are all about rock stars standing around looking pensive, karaoke videos are the last stronghold of the narrative music video, some with a one-to-one correspondence to the actions taking place in the song, some having absolutely squat to do with the song but with a cohesive plot nonetheless. You can impress your date by making deep theoretical statements about how ever-changing interpretations of the songs juxtaposed upon these images makes for a profound performance piece.

There's a boating theme in the video for Toto's "Hold the Line." "Sunny" by Bobby Hebb features an interracial couple finding love and discovering the power of dance as a fake fire rages in the hearth behind them. In "Let's Give 'em Something to Talk About" by Bonnie Raitt, a top-hatted dwarf performs semaphore, and employing various magnifying devices, makes a number of unsuccessful attempts at voyeurism on a modern-country coupling of a lusty female bumpkin and a Marlboro-man-stud before they all get together and have a good hearty laugh ... then, again with the semaphore. In one karaoke video version of a Joe Jackson song, the keen observer can spot influences by the portal-to-fantasy-world-of-love of A-Ha's "Take on Me" and Olivia Newton-John's "Physical."


A Puppet, a Pauper, a Pirate, a Poet ...

Lifestyle magazines have begun to take note of karaoke's growing popularity amongst scenesters and celebrities. "Beautiful people shouldn'tbe allowed to karaoke," responds Teresa, a local diehard karaoke fanatic. "They get enough attention as it is. Karaoke is for us losers and dorks." Too true, though who wouldn't want to see famous singers karaoke-ing to their own songs, as in the true story of David Lee Roth singing "Just a Gigolo" at New York City's Elbow Room. Back home, the Common Interest attracts the occasional local celebrity. Shawn Colvin has been spotted there, though sources say she unfortunately did not sing "Sonny Came Home," which they do have there on the box. One barfly insists that honky-tonktress Kelly Willis used to hang out there. And Brent Gorrell, leader of the perennial group Brent Gorrell & the 47 Indians, works and sings there. Pinetop Snooky's annual Karaoke Christmas at Hole in the Wall draws many a lonely heart who doesn't have (or is escaping from) family. Bruce: "The crowd there is all musicians -- they don't have families for a reason."

"Real" musicians, in fact, find that no audience is more supportive than a karaoke audience, not even the ones that pay to see them. The clapping and whooping and singing along is wholehearted, even when the singer can't carry a tune. Fear of a bad voice keeps so many from getting onstage, but those who only like to watch are missing the point: a good voice is completely unnecessary. You can captivate a karaoke audience with whatever you got: flourish, song choice, endearing shyness, comically bad singing, anything! Hearing forgotten favorites rendered through sundry personalities makes for a laugh riot.

The fact that kitsch kulture has become status quo is also a reason that karaoke is gaining younger, hipper, and even famous followers, but karaoke existed before the current retro wave and will certainly outlive the fickle fancies of ironic young people. Barnstormer Bruce says he was warned of the fad factor when he chose this line of work. "My friends have been telling me for the last nine years that this is a trend that's going to go away, but it's only getting bigger."

If karaoke is becoming mainstream and trendy, though, no worries -- to enjoy the spectacle that is karaoke, you have to be open-minded enough to enjoy and respect people from all walks of life singing all kinds of disagreeable songs, even the Grease soundtrack, and yes, even modern country.


Songs in the Key of Life

Maybe karaoke is a godsend: not only a cure for bored souls, but, as Karaoke Scene suggests, a cure for many of the world's ills. It facilitates family communication through singing, important in a time of widespread loosening of the moral fibers and the slackening of family values. The words on a television monitor, especially when accompanied by scenes of a video, can be used in the fight against illiteracy. Karaoke's interactive nature gets people off their fat, lazy asses and involved in their own entertainment instead of being passive, consumptive vessels. Pretty whacked ideals, sure, but if karaoke ends up saving the world, then I, for one, want to live in that world.

The variety of genres and sheer quantity of classics make your average karaoke box a sort of jukebox of the gods. Karaoke is music stripped of the original artists who made it -- and all the attendant ego and greed of musical superstars and the industry -- and given back to the people. And these people are doing more than just following the lyrics on the screen. They're doing something beautiful: communing with others who share their common interest, and in this communion they ascend to a spiritual place vacated by the false deities studding the music industry. In this place, everyone is a star and pleasure is had by all, even when it's delivered in the wrong key.


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