Karaoke: Those who can't, do anyway; those who wish they could, only watch in mute rapture.
Before I was going to Bar Mitzvah parties every weekend, you could usually find me at the local roller skating rink on Saturdays. Roller Kingdom was nothing particularly special, but I spent a decent part of my childhood there, mainly because most people I knew could get discounted birthday parties since our friend's father owned the place.
I didn't actually spend much of my time skating; I'd usually hang out in the arcade or eat slice after slice of cardboard pizza. When I did venture onto the rink, I'd wobble around a few times, sticking close to the edge. Maybe, after enough successful circuits, I'd decide to let loose and go a little too fast, or make too tight a turn, and that was it; I was on my ass. As an easily embarrassed kid, it was kind of tough.
But I much preferred getting humiliated on the linoleum over what could potentially occur on Roller Kingdom's other "stage". In one corner of the cavernous space, a large black box had been carved out. Every so often, someone with the requisite courage would step up and into it, grab the microphone from the stand, and, once the backing track started, belt out one of his or her favorite songs for the crowd of kids that would inevitably gather to watch. To this day, I can vividly remember my friend Kerri standing up there, shifting nervously from one foot to the other, and cautiously, but accurately, covering Ace of Base's "The Sign". This was not something I would have done.
That's not to say I didn't want to; despite my off-key voice, I definitely enjoyed singing from a young age, whether it was to the "Fraggle Rock" theme song or to the many cassette singles I amassed over the years. I even successfully begged my parents for a state-of-the-art karaoke machine. I had about three innocently named tapes (think "Rap Favorites") to go along with it, each featuring one side with lyrics and one with just the backing tracks. Though my parents encouraged me to perform the tunes for them (if only to reassure themselves that they hadn't just thrown away $200 for nothing), I mostly brought out my LL Cool J imitation in the basement, alone. My act wasn't ready for the public.
Everyone has a certain propensity for performance; just ask my co-workers, who spent a full day last week singing along to Broadway classics and Salt n' Pepa (it appears that every girl in America was required to buy a copy of Very Necessary in 1993 and listen to it every single day). Even I got a thrill from taking the stage for my senior class play in high school. But except for a late-night impersonation of Prince -- for an audience of about five, including the bartenders -- on my last birthday, I've mainly left the karaoke to other people. I do like to watch, though.
It seems there's never a shortage of amateurs ready to step on stage, and they all have their own reasons for doing it. Through my years of observation, I've been able to identify the main types of people who grab the mic and do their thing. The categories that follow are by no means exhaustive (or mutually exclusive), but they've helped me make sense of an art whose appeal largely eludes me unless I’ve had a few too many. Perhaps it will help you in the same way (or maybe you'll just recognize yourself).
He's there every week. The bartenders know him, the drunks know him, everybody knows it's only a matter of time before he gets up to do his thing. He could be awful, he could be great, but it's usually clear that this is pretty much all he looks forward to. It's his only community (well, unless he hits other karaoke nights around town). He might kick things off on a slow night, but he usually gets a plum spot, too. He’d really like you to sing along.
Favorite songs: "Nights In White Satin" (Moody Blues); "American Pie" (Don McLean)
Even more so than selecting a song on a jukebox, the choice of a song to sing reveals a lot about a person's tastes – invariably, it's a song that holds some sort of memory for the singer, one close to that person's heart. This personal touch is tempered by the fact that most songbooks are woefully limited, including only the crowd pleasers. This greatly reduces the chances of having to sit through an excruciating rendition of, say, Tom Waits' "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six".
But it also means you're likely to hear Big & Rich's "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" or Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" more than once in an evening. The choices are even more limited if you go the live band route and attempt to live out your rock star dreams, or if you do as my co-worker recently did, and go to a karaoke spot with large selections in Japanese and Korean, but not so many in English. So the would-be sharer becomes downright predictable over time.
Favorite songs: "Big Yellow Taxi" (Joni Mitchell, may accept Counting Crows), "Regulate" (Warren G feat. Nate Dogg), "Life Is A Highway" (Tom Cochrane)
Some people just want to be in the spotlight (check out “Singing Bee” and “Don’t Forget The Lyrics” if don’t believe me). If there weren't karaoke, they'd be pulling a Coyote Ugly on top of the bar. However, not all performers are the same.
She starred in all her high school's musical productions, she was a voice major in college, she might even still take lessons once or twice a week, but she doesn't exactly have a singing career in the works. She takes these opportunities to belt out some tunes that showcase her skills, showing up everyone else, whether intentionally or not. You'll know her by the way she holds every note just a bit too long, and how she walks off the stage with a self-satisfied air.
Favorite songs: "Unbreak My Heart" (Toni Braxton), "Always Be My Baby" (Mariah Carey), the entire “Rent” soundtrack
Often an overzealous employee who takes advantage of his or her position to sneak a song in every half-hour, this person has no clue of how bad he or she sounds. She sings loud and long, and is not at all shy about notes outside her range (because she's not aware she has a range). It's difficult to decide whether to admire her courage, cringe at her ineptitude, or just laugh and hope she brings you a free shot.
Favorite songs: "Adia" (Sarah McLachlan), "Turn The Page" (Bob Seger)
The Drunk Dude
He misses most of the lyrics because he's busy pointing at his friends and/or slurping down his eighth Long Island. The backwards hat is a dead giveaway.
Favorite songs: "Gimme That Nutt" (Eazy-E), "Sweet Caroline" (Neil Diamond)
The One Who Just Doesn't Want To Be There
Whether dragged onstage by friends (in one of those unbearable group performances) or goaded by them to sign up solo, this person gives a half-hearted attempt, fumbles through the song, and ends up slinking offstage to awkward applause (except for Drunk Dude, who hoots wildly, thinking he has a chance).
Favorite songs: None
The Ironic Guy
When I heard Kerri sing "The Sign", it was kind of cool. When I hear someone sing it now, it's funny for the first minute, then tiresome, then "get the hell off the stage" annoying. There's a fine line between nostalgia and obnoxiousness, and this guy crosses it every time. (One exception to the rule: Bonnie Tyler’s "Total Eclipse of the Heart" – never gets old.)
Favorite songs: "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" (The Proclaimers), "One Of Us" (Joan Osbourne), any Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys song
The One Who Doesn't Care What You Think
This is the character who makes the night memorable. Back in college, there was a guy who'd "accompany" each karaoke performer on the drums; he wouldn’t really be banging on anything, just mimicking what he imagined the original percussionist might have been doing during the song. Everyone humored him, and occasionally he'd get up to sing his own selection. It was kind of beautiful, in its own messed up way.
Not quite as moving, but no less entertaining, is the guy at my local pizza place/ sports bar, who turns every song, from Modern English’s "I Melt With You" to Steely Dan’s "Rikki Don't Lose That Number", into a fast-paced, monotone punk tune. Strangely, these guys are both about 5'4".
Favorite songs: Everything, especially AC/DC
Of course, I'm the worst of them all: the guy who stands back and silently judges (most of the time). I'm no longer that kid who stayed glued to the rail at Roller Kingdom, panic-stricken at the very thought of getting on that lonely stage; my non-participation is more practical than fear-based. And hey, all performers need an audience, right? Otherwise, they might as well be sitting in their basements on ugly floral couches, singing "Around the Way Girl" and then dunking on a Nerf basketball hoop for emphasis. Not that I would know anything about that.