Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Etiquette of Karaoke

Back when I lived in the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, my friends and I would occasionally go to Karaoke. Although my set of friends in San Francisco is the most elite and posh group the city has to offer, we usually decided to leave the royalty of the W to grace our gold plated shoes upon the vomit and beer stained floors of Market street.


Cheap drinks and old bartenders who had nothing to lose… If you have to question the latter of the two, maybe we should sit down over a nice beer and talk about the state of ‘desperation.’

But back to the topic: Karaoke.

My friends and I would go to this real dive on Market, I believe it was called “Moores’ or some Irish name. Every bar in my neighborhood was named after an Italian or Irish family. Did I mention I lived on the cusp of the Tenderloin, one of the most dangerous districts in San Francisco? I also lived on the cusp of the Castro, which is the gay district. I felt like my neighborhood bars had the blend of rough hooligan homosexuals. I know this may seem like an Oxymoron, but they do exist and I shame you for stereotyping.

Occasionally on Wednesday nights I would go out for drinks with my friends and inevitably we would end up at this bar. Some of my friends would go home preparing themselves for their 'big job' on Thursday, but I was an intern with no mortgage. I thought it was either now or never and I only needed five hours of sleep to be a functioning adult; I need at least eight to be a functioning child. Now maybe it was due to late nights out or the state of the economy, but when I became ‘fun employed’ or as I told the Unemployment Office ‘a desperate job seeker,’ I went to the Karaoke joint more periodically with my ‘self-employed’ neighbor.


He always bought the drinks.

Once inside the warm and musky smelling bar, my friends and I would sing the likes of Snoop Dog and occasionally our friend Katie who knows how to sing would belt out a rendition of “All that Jazz” to the delight of the bartenders and the Karaoke fanatics (Yes some people go to Karaoke eight nights a week and treat it as a second job)…

Now if you have never been to Karaoke and if your voice is below par it is always necessary that you pick a song that everyone knows and can sing to. Nobody wants to hear a bad singer and the elightest Karaoke peeps will boo you off the stage or talk really loud while you are trying to sing, “Come to My Window” by Melissa Ethridge. Side note, nobody came to my window that night.

The real challenge of Karaoking is finding the songs that the crowd is going to like. Unless of course you have an amazing voice like Christina Aguilera and can blow the audience out of the water with your God given talent, but this only comes along in a blue moon and if you think you have a good voice, just Karaoke one night and you’ll know if your hidden talent is really a talent. kiss. That being said, if you are like 99.9% of America or the world for that matter your voice is probably bad, thus when you go to Karaoke you need to pick the crowd pleasers, not the ones that will showcase your cat-like voice.

As I travel across the world and go to many different Karaoke joints this idea of singing the crowd pleasers holds the same note. Although in different countries and even regions the songs change drastically. Here in Korea, the crowd pleasers are old Korean songs that have really high squealing sequences or surprisingly ABBA, more specifically Mamma Mia theme songs. Just like the Castro back at home, Momma Mia was a hit!!!

Koreans call Karaoke joints Noribongs and they are not like your average Karaoke facility. Instead of a large room with strangers Noribongs are private and just amongst friends or foreign hooligans who have met and bonded throughout the night.

Each person picks his or her ‘Go to Song’ and then they sing it to their friends. Usually, everyone in the room sings the songs together and people can share the stage. This isn’t always the case. I have had a few nights where microphones have been punched out of my hands. Some people are just spotlight hogs and let me tell you these are never the people that you want to Noribong or Karaoke with as they have in fact lost the essence of Karaoking: Togetherness.

I have also had my ‘Go to Songs’ skipped, this happens quite often when I am Noribonging with a certain character who will remain unanimous until I leave Korea. I fear that my Noribonging privileges will be taken if I announce the culprit via the internet.

In Japan I did a few Karaoking sessions. One place that I went was similar to the Korean Noribongs, but another one was the American style Karaoke with strangers singing together in one big room. I would like to give a Japanese perspective of my experience, but each time I went I was surrounded by a strange nationality called Australian. I figured these chaps would love to sing songs like, “I Come from a Land Downunder” or be all up in arms over Kylie Minogue, but there mouths salivated to Billy Joel and “Creep” by Radiohead.

As a side note, “Creep” is also an underground Karaoke song. Almost everyone and their mother knows that song and it has great climatic stages to get the audience really ‘in it.’ It also boast simple, but true to life lyrics like, “I wish I was special. You’re so fucking special!”

Now, I’m not trying to stereotype the Australian musical choices, people were throwing out lots of great songs not just Billy Joel (not to say Billy Joel isn’t an amazing musician because he is…), I was just surprised by their choices. I guess… I just felt like an outsider looking into classics that I grew up on. It was as though they were singing their national anthem… as though there was a hidden message to these songs that I had just not heard before… as though the song was originally played in the key of G, but for some reason because of the equator the Australians always knew the song in the key of C. And while I sat there sipping on my wasp vodka (yes a wasp was in my vodka) I couldn’t help but think, “Do my Korean friends feel the same way when my American friends and I sing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at the Noribongs?”

Maybe I felt this way because of the etiquette or should I say essence of Karaoke, ‘the knowledge of your audience.’ I didn’t know if the Australians went on long road trips with their parents and sang such classics as “In the Middle of the Night” by Billy Joel or if my Korean friends turn on the radio station with their girlfriends and belt out in unison “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler…

I guess Karaoke just makes me miss home. It makes me miss really bad radio music and the 90s. I don’t really know the moral to my story, but hopefully it will inspire you to head to your local Karaoke bar and indulge in bad music and hominess.

1 comment:

  1. I have a few "go to" songs for Karaoke (usually sung in Korean joints, so only with my friends): Celebrity Skin, by Hole; Breakaway, by Kelly Clarkson; and Vogue, by Madonna. I will *always* make people allow me to sing these three. Oh, and if we're at my Korean friends' house playing Rock Band it's both Celebrity Skin and Maps.