By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
As they frantically scrolled through song info on their single-disc player -- another big faux pas, as no self-respecting operator would leave the house without at least a 60-disc changer -- it became obvious that they, themselves, had no clue what songs they had. Instead of a participatory session of karaoke thrills, the deluded crowd had to settle for hours of these two incompetents singing bad versions of random songs all by themselves. One poor soul even tried to join in on a Rolling Stones tune but had the microphone literally pulled out of his hand by one of the hammy hosts. Somehow these bunco artists call their activities "karaoke" without the Attorney General bringing fraud charges.
D'Jai may not have the stage charisma of the best operators, but she doesn't try to hog the spotlight, singing only the occasional number to get things moving. Best of all, she does a good job of giving everybody a chance to sing without waiting too long. Knowledgeable karaoke heads would probably quibble with some of her discs, though. At about 30 bucks apiece for 60 to 200 discs, the vocal-less, graphics-equipped discs are the biggest expense involved in running a karaoke setup. It's tempting for operators to skimp on discs, buying cheaper low-quality discs whose backing tracks are even cheesier than usual, but karaoke aficionados can tell the difference. One guy complains about her "Mack the Knife" backing track: "She's buying these discs at Kmart."
Some singers actually bring their own discs, featuring their signature tune in the right key for their voice with an arrangement they like. Most operators don't encourage this, because switching discs interrupts the flow of things, but these types tend to be regulars who spend a lot of money and time on karaoke every week. A regular needs to be kept happy, whether it's the skinny, mullet-headed white guy who belts out "Purple Rain" and only "Purple Rain" or the pink-haired hipster chick who pays unironically worshipful tribute to Celine Dion.
Most of the regulars appear to be well-adjusted citizens, but a certain minority element is driven to karaoke by loneliness. The pathos is sometimes hard to see through the good-time haze. One former regular at a South County karaoke bar, whom we'll call Buddy, just seemed like a harmless if annoying eccentric. His signature song was Del Reeves' novelty trucker number "Girl on the Billboard," and his particular quirk was the hand puppet he wore every night. Buddy would employ the puppet in a running dialogue throughout the evening, ordering drinks and hitting on women with it. It wasn't as cute as Buddy thought, but people generally tolerated it and chuckled along. Then Buddy killed himself. The regulars and the hosts realized how little they knew the life of the party. One dirty little secret of karaoke hosts is that they sometimes make clandestine recordings of the more ridiculous singers to laugh at with friends and family. Buddy's hosts had gotten a lot of laughs from a particularly blotto rendition of "Girl on the Billboard," but after his suicide it just sounded creepy and sad.
That's an extreme case. But it's that kind of human drama that makes karaoke so compelling. We're a reserved people, with precious few avenues for public display and observation of emotion. Under cover of the stage lights and a crackling backing track, some of us can say and do things we would never be able to in any other context. People reveal themselves, often in ways they don't intend. And the rest of us can watch! It's enough to make even "American Pie" interesting -- if not quite for the full eight minutes.