My old friend from Seattle was in town not too long ago, and we set out to do what we always do when visiting one another: get our karaoke freak-out on. We take it seriously. We're not pros by any means, but we're definitely hobbyists—we view it as a craft to be honed, a very particular art form. Karaoke is the Art of Fantasy. It's the art of rocking out in public to the digital crack of a synthesized musical whip. It's the art of letting your inhibitions down, of letting your heart shine for the briefest of moments with the power of song. Not everyone can let go of themselves in this way, when the spotlight is on them and the pressure is on, but those who can—us "artists"—live for the moment; that short, precious time under the glittering disco ball when everything feels right.
At Chopsticks my friend and I made our selections, ordered our Pabst tallboys, and waited to feel like stars. And waited. And waited. Four hours later it was 2:15 am, we had chugged through 10 more tallboys and a plate of pot stickers each, and most importantly, we'd pumped nearly $40 into Chopsticks and neither one of us had been called up even once to sing our respective songs. "Last song," announced the karaoke host (better known as the "KJ"). We waited, mouths open in drunken anticipation. "Everybody now!"
... The dreaded group song, where all the people still standing, high on the fumes of their earlier successes singing solo, band together for one last sloshy go-around in celebration of their performative endeavors. But my friend and I had been provided no such earlier solo efforts from which to draw upon a fond farewell, and we could not join our soused brethren. Our stars would not shine on this night; our skies would be as dark as our now-embittered hearts. And so, grumpy and frustrated, we trudged home, the raucous choral notes of "Bohemian Rhapsody" dancing in the air behind us.
It's time to face facts people: The karaoke scene in Portland has reached critical mass. We have too many karaoke buffs and too few karaoke bars. Chopsticks. The Galaxy. The Alibi. The Ambassador. All wonderful karaoke havens in their own special way—all so crammed with caterwauling lushes on any given night that you're lucky to get a song in edgewise. Even weeknights are becoming off limits. On a recent Monday, I was given only one song in three hours at Chopsticks. A recent Tuesday: no songs in three hours at the Alibi.
And it doesn't help matters that the very distributors of our beloved craft are stacked against us as well. Like national politics, the karaoke world is an ever-corrupting cesspool of back patting and favor trading—that's right, I'm talking about the KJs, whose friends and lovers are, not so coincidentally, getting up to sing a hell of a lot more times than you are. Perhaps the most maddening aspect of that aforementioned failed weekend night at Chopsticks was watching the "regulars" waltz up to the mic again and again while us who weren't "in the know" cursed quietly into our beers.
I recently approached Chopsticks KJ "Jen" Fitzpatrick and demanded an explanation for this phenomenon—what's the deal with friends getting higher priority on a busy night than perfectly well-behaved, drink-purchasing non-friends?
"I'm so sorry that happened," she said in a disarmingly singsong voice. "Sometimes we just mess up, but at Chopsticks we're generally pretty fair."
That's all well and good, except for the fact that we witnessed with our own eyes ample evidence proving the exact opposite of "fair"—UNfair! Perhaps "Jen" really is blissfully unaware of the nepotistic atrocities buried in her chosen profession, but more likely, she's trying to cover up the conspiracy just like all the other rat-bastard KJs who give friends preferential treatment. (She did, after all, confess to giving special notice to those who "tip well." Who knows what else she's capable of... )
But whether "Jen" is a dirty liar or not (she is), what's important to remember is this: The days of waltzing into a Christmas-light-covered quiet little karaoke shack and crooning an endless stream of songs to an audience of isolated video poker players are over. Karaoke is a permanent fixture in the public consciousness, and on any given outing these days, you're going to get one chance to sing and one chance only—if that. For the aspiring karaoke star this is big news; it means that you can no longer try out song after song, experimenting endlessly with new tracks and techniques until you find that number that fits you perfectly. Your first crack is THE crack, and if you don't nail it, you're nothing. You're just another wannabe suck-ass like the drunk on your left who signed up to sing "Livin' On a Prayer" for the fifth time this week.
In these dark, changing times, I urge you to ask yourself this, Karaoke Artist: How serious about your craft are you really? Are you ready to do what it takes to light up the stage like a blazing comet in the new cutthroat world of karaoke? Are you ready to make the most of your Moment when doing so is harder than it's ever been before? Good. Here's how.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
It should come as no surprise that, like any art form, good karaoke comes with practice, but it's hard to practice when you only get one song in per session. You can thwart this phenomenon by coming in early on the weekdays before the rush hits. Stop by on your way home from work and throw down a couple of songs. Unwind in style with a couple karaoke jams. It only takes a few tunes each day for your game to improve tremendously, and a crowd's a crowd, little or big. Sing in front of the smaller late-afternoon crowds, and when you get that one chance in front of the big weekend crowd, they'll eat you up like the delectable little donut you are.
Be careful to mix up your practice sessions and shift between different karaoke venues. If you appear too frequently at any one place, you run the risk of becoming one of the reviled regulars and thus receiving special attention from the KJs. Do not buy into this anti-capitalist system that values friendship and loyalty over pure, unadulterated commerce! It may be very tempting to get all buddy-buddy with the KJ, but in doing so you are feeding into the Karaoke Man, and spitting in the eye of us karaoke lovers whom the KJ doesn't like. Fight the system!
A LASTING IMPRESSION
Contrary to popular belief, being unforgettable in karaoke isn't dependent on singing ability. Yes, a modicum of vocal pitch and rhythmic sensibility is needed, but style and nuance beats out sheer Mariah-Carey-like talent any day. Unfortunately, charisma can't be taught, but if you have even a flicker of it (and if you love karaoke you probably do), it can be enlarged by making wise choices.
Though I had long ceased to trust her, I managed to ask KJ "Jen" what it is that makes a single karaoke performance electrifying. She agreed that while execution is important, it's nothing without a dope track to execute. Memorable performances involve "songs that have a lot of flair," said Jen. Anyone can sing a song well, but few have the art of selection down—the best karaoke songs combine catchiness and quirkiness. Mega-hits like Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" will get the crowd singing along, but will never truly affect people like the long-forgotten but still-catchy numbers that resonate, touching both the ears and the heart. "Oh my God! THIS song!? I remember this song! I LOVE this song!" is the audience response you seek. Debarge's "Rhythm of the Night" is a fine example, as is "Tarzan Boy" by Baltimora. Both these songs also have a balanced array of music and non-repetitive lyrics. Many karaoke songs have long musical interludes that force the singer to awkwardly fill time with physical movement (Eagles' "Hotel California"), or excessively repetitive lyrics that aren't fun to sing or listen to (Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train"). Long lyrical verses and choruses, followed by short, punchy instrumental segments are ideal, as evidenced in Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run."
Serious karaoke artists have a repertoire of unique song selections to sort through based on the vibe of the crowd. A blend of mellow and upbeat tracks is key, but don't overshoot. It's better to have three songs you excel at than seven songs you're just okay at, and there's no shame in doing the same song over and over again until you get it right. And once you have it learned you'll never forget it.
"The timing is also really important," says Jen. "You want to pull out those party songs at the end of the night." Yes, it's true: The karaoke artist is a singer, a connoisseur, and a fortuneteller. You'll put your song slip in on a crowded night and three hours later, it'll come up. What will be the crowd's mood be then? Will they really want to hear Lionel Ritchie's "Hello" at 1:30 am? Play psychoanalyst and predict where your crowd is heading. Nobody said this was going to be easy.
GOD BLESS AMERICA
Increasingly, perhaps due to its association with beer and bad Chinese food, karaoke is being looked upon as a "lower" pursuit, attracting more and more amateurs each passing day, prompting overcrowded venues and a corrupt system of KJ favoritism. But those who live for that moment on the karaoke stage, when everything is aligned and the world looks a little brighter, know that karaoke has a seething creative pulse, and to treat it lightly is to spit in the face of a venerable art form. Let us band together, o' devoted karaoke brethren, and take our hobby back from the masses. We may only get one moment to shine (on any given night), but we will pledge to shine in that moment, and in so doing, inspire others to keep on shining, too.
SECRET KARAOKE HOTSPOTS!
Tired of fighting the crowds and corrupt KJs at Portland's hipper karaoke joints? Check out these lesser-known singing shacks—the last remnants of crowd-free karaoke in Portland.
The Boiler Room, 228 NW Davis, karaoke nightly
One of downtown's secret gems can get busy, but the clientele often ignores the respectably sized karaoke stage, which means more singin' for you!
The Spare Room, 4830 NE 42nd, karaoke Mon-Tues
The Spare Room picks up the karaoke slack on Mondays and Tuesdays, the singing opportunities flow as fast as the cheap drinks.
The Paragon Club, 815 N Killingsworth, karaoke Wed-Sat
This diviest of dives actually sports a pretty sharp karaoke room with plenty of singing ops on weeknights.
Grandma's, 4515 SE 41st, karaoke Thurs-Sat
Family restaurant by day, happenin' basement bar by night, Grandma's offers a sweet, oft-neglected little karaoke corner for the wayward singer.
Sorabol, 7901 SE Powell, weekend karaoke
This strip-malled karaoke/barbecue joint features a pleasantly weird basement-style karaoke area, replete with songs in both English and Korean.
Suki's, 2401 SW 4th, karaoke Thurs-Sat
Suki's is a great place for weekend karaoke—it's conveniently located downtown but is rarely busy.
88 Hong's, SE Division & 82nd, karaoke nightly
Great book, with a charged, party atmosphere.
The Farm House, 3612 SE 82nd, karaoke nightly
There's a country-and-western tinge to this 82nd abode, but the songbook is stellar.
Yen Ha, 6820 NE Sandy, karaoke Thurs-Sat
Come for the karaoke but stay for the Vietnamese food, which is some of the strongest to be found in Portland.
Hollywood Bowl, 4030 NE Halsey, karaoke Fri-Sat
Consistently overlooked by the hipsters, this in-town sweet spot is an instant karaoke classic.