My new year’s resolution for 2016 was to go to karaoke once a month. I got a little militant about it. I picked a day: the third Tuesday of the month. Every month. Karaoke Night. I sent out a Google Calendar invite to a lot of people I knew from random walks of life, thinking, what the hell. How many people are really going to show up late on a Tuesday night to a dingy dive bar to sing karaoke. Probably no one. So I invited everyone.
The point of doing this was to practice getting over myself a little bit. A couple years ago my family went on a cruise and my brothers and I all entered the karaoke competition, which my brother won with a killer rendition of “Let’s Get It On” and which I bombed with a flat attempt at Aretha’s “RESPECT.” The cruise was a blast, but inside I was kind of butthurt about the whole karaoke thing, and it kept nagging at me. I’m not a bad singer, but sometimes I take things too seriously. It seemed ridiculous to care so much about something so silly. So with this New Year’s resolution I wanted to practice not not caring, but just being willing to dip in and out of serious and not-serious a little quicker, a little more resiliently. I wanted to learn to take things seriously but also let them go.
In some sense this type of thing is something you could practice with a number of different activities, but karaoke is important because it has this social element: it’s about how you act around people in public. It’s about seeing how good and bad you can be in front of people, testing the limits around each other — how terrible at singing can someone be? How amazing? How drunk? How sober? How freaking awesome? How fucking weird? Also it’s totally frivolous and gratuitous, so it begs the question: how are you going to act in community when things ultimately don’t really matter, and why? Which, not to get too existential but, is kind of like life.
I like thinking about big things and I like having fun with other people. Hence: Karaoke Night. I’ve got one more coming up for the year — the 3rd Tuesday of December is next week — but I’m going to be too busy stuffing my face with egg nog and fudge come Christmastime to write a blog, so here’s some things I’ve learned from this experience for you.
Side note: I know this whole thing is an introvert’s nightmare. That said, thanks to all my introvert friends who came out over the months; you’re my heroes and you make me change the way I think about doing things.
- Karaoke begets karaoke. This is like how when someone collects elephants, everyone buys them elephant shit forever: once people find out something’s your thing, it becomes your thing even more. Karaoke “once a month” often turned into karaoke three or four times a week. Because I don’t have kids and even though I have important goals and hopes and dreams and other responsibilities I don’t have energy for them after 9pm and anyways, who am I to turn down another opportunity to tap into my 90’s music roots. I know the world is burning down around us, but this is how I spent my year.
- Neutral territory is key. If you’re bringing together people who don’t know each other well, it’s nice to have something really random to connect over. I feel this way about soccer or hiking or other activities, but karaoke is nice because you dont have to be in shape or worry about different skill levels. Again, you’re allowed to be bad at singing, that’s part of the point. Plus, even if you come to just hang out, it’s still a free show on top of your normal night at the bar. It’s just enough different-than-usual and just enough no-pressure. I do enough random stuff in my life that I know people from all kinds of social spheres, and this year it was cool to see different people connect over this single shared factor: that I begged them to please don’t let me be alone on Tuesday and come to karaoke.
- Be particular. When I picked Tuesday nights at 9pm, it weeded out a lot of my friends. Some people were like fuck no! Tuesday? Karaoke? Are you crazy? And some people were like HELL YES, see you there. This isn’t unlike anything you make a hard fast arbitrary decision about. This is why I write fiction: you don’t talk about everything, you talk about one thing. You sing ONE song. Make it good, make it important, make it fun. It’s okay if people don’t agree or come! But at least you’re having a conversation point with them. “Let’s hang out sometime” doesn’t always turn into anything, but “Karaoke with me at 9pm on Tuesday” results in a lot of hard nos and yeses and also a bunch of maybes, we’ll sees, next times, I’m scared but I’m interesteds — it enriched my friendships with people I still haven’t seen in months as well as people I see all the time.
- Welcome the surprise. Often I would target and harass people into coming to karaoke with me; other times I wouldn’t and let me tell you — the best feeling in the world is showing up thinking it’s just going to be you, yourself, and your Merlot and then having people walk in who I never thought would be available or interested in the least come join in and turn a regular ol’ night into a bright sunshiney day.
- Don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s not a consistent rule, but it’s not uncommon for people who look very capable and put together to really suck at singing — and for people who seem weird ASS at first, second, third, and every glance to be really kind of incredible. I also love seeing what songs people pick — you can usually guess the country people, but every now and then a little Asian dude will slay an Otis Redding song or an old decrepit-seeming lady will go HAM (Hard As A Motherf*cker) on Missy Elliott.
- It’s okay to be bad at things. Again, I’m not terrible at karaoke. Usually some drunk guy will come up and tell me I’m the second or third best singer in the bar… which I always appreciate (remember: Tuesday night. “Bar” = 7 people). But no matter how good at things you are, there’s always someone better in some way. Someone who can sing and dance, someone who knows all the words to “Bootylicious”, someone who sucks way worse than you at singing but is clearly way braver than you ever will be.
- Read the crowd. Some nights, you really want to sing a lady ballad, but the bar is full of weird alterna-bros. Pick Audioslave instead. Save Celine Dion for nights when there’s a bunch of boring looking girls being quiet in a corner and they will come alive. Sometimes you should just sing what you want to sing because you had a bad day and who cares; other nights you can feel the competition in the air and you should bust out one of your all-time top-5 greatest karaoke hits. Is it crowded and busy? Don’t pick anything longer than 3 minutes.” Is it super slow night with one old creepy guy in the corner? Go ahead with “Baba O’ Riley” in all its million-measures-musical-break-glory; be my guest, break a leg.
- Tip your bartender. Bartenders are always putting up with shit, but even more so on karaoke night. Double tip if it’s a slow night and they sing.
- Tip your KJ. He has heard this song a trillion times and he may or may not hate it. He’s working hard just like we all do all week. He’s putting up with your shameless self-escapism or self-discovery. I always forget cash so I try to drop a $20 when I have one. KJ Rob rules.
- If you’re alone in a bar, do not talk to someone else who’s alone in a bar. Talk to a couple, talk to a group. Never talk to someone who’s by themselves because they’re just as weird and needy as you and the combined neediness is too isolating for two people. I’m not saying be a cold asshole — smile and high five them for their song, but do NOT engage or your evening will implode.
- If you have decisions to make karaoke will help you. On the fence about breaking up with someone? Quitting your job? What life is really about? You will get affirmation (or at least strong opinions about) whatever it is you need. It’s like therapy, only grounded in zero standards. So ask away, but just remember the kind of people who are doing it are people who are at karaoke on a Tuesday night because they’re a little bored and a little lost and a little hopeful and a little idealistic, just like you.
- It’s okay to be by yourself, but you are never alone. I cant tell you how many times I thought I was going to be there by myself and somebody I knew showed up. Or, just as frequently, no one showed up and I made friends. Give it another couple songs or another couple sips and you’ll all be family — the karaoke spirit is an all-inclusive force. It sounds cheesy, but people are people, and we’re all in this together. If I had a dollar for every time I had that thought doing karaoke this year, I could tip EVERY bartender and KJ in every karaoke bar in the world.