Facing the Music

Mar 11, 2010 at 12am

When you tell a karaoke person that you don’t sing karaoke, the response can be visceral. Cheeks redden, eyes narrow. “How can you come to karaoke and not sing?” they demand. I just can. “Why won’t you?” they ask. I just won’t. “Come on, just put a song in,” they beg. Like Bartleby, I prefer not to. Like a creepy wallflower at a strip club, I just like to watch.

But, really, that’s not the whole truth. After spending countless nights singing along on the sidelines, I can’t ignore the fact that part of me does want to be on stage. But when I have held the mic, in one of those lame duets or mass sing-alongs, nothing good comes out of my mouth – just a weak stream of thin sounds. Merciful KJs (karaoke djs) tend to crank up the backing vocals or dial down the song early when I’ve graced the room with my anemic tones.

This is no way to live. Nobody likes a lurker, and I’ve been Lady Lurks-a-Lot in San Francisco karaoke joints for years. Time to face the music.

The first stop in my karaoke turnaround was a singing lesson with Heather Pierce, who works out of The Voice Studio in Potrero. I arrived out of breath and soaking wet from an unexpected downpour, and found a calm and welcoming oasis in Heather’s soundproofed room. Seated behind a keyboard, Heather popped in a disc to record my lesson, and instructed me to begin by singing a few scales. Up and down we went, my voice wavering.

When we stopped, I asked her something that had been on my mind, as a possible explanation/permanent karaoke out: “Am I tone deaf?”

“No,” she said chuckling. “I have so many clients that think that they’re tone deaf, but they’re not.” A tone deaf person, she explained, would have trouble with the whole concept of chord progression. Even if I couldn’t hit the notes, my attempts betrayed some basic grasp of scales.

After going up and down the notes again, we chatted some more. In choosing a karaoke song, Heather recommended that I stay out of “the mix” — the high end — and aim for something closer to my speaking voice. Like, as close to talking as possible. The key to doing a pop song, when the choruses usually hit the mix, would be to transition as smoothly into the mix and then back again.

“Have you brought a song to practice?” she asked me. Stammering a bit, I reached into my bag and took out a burned CD. Earlier in the week, I had pondered this question. Heather had advised me over email to find some music to work on and I came up with Bonnie Raitt. I love Bonnie Raitt. I grew up on Bonnie Raitt. But, also, I threw some Bruce Springsteen to temper all that Bonnie, which was, frankly, a little embarrassing.

“Huh, Bonnie Raitt,” Heather said, as she put disc into stereo.

After trying “Something to Talk About,” Heather gave me some more instruction. Moving your jaw down, rather than widening your mouth, was a way to get a better sound. (Try it — it works!) Copping a pouty attitude while practicing, as silly as it feels, is another way to improve the sound, making the words and intonation less garbled. We decided, after a few more go-rounds, that Bruce might be a better fit for me. He doesn’t get in the mix as much as Bonnie. I left with the first few stanzas of “Brilliant Disguise” bouncing around in my head, and a promise to practice scales.

The next few days, I began singing loudly at home. My showers, never short affairs, went past the half hour mark. The day after the voice lesson, my boyfriend said that I was getting better. The day after that, he said I was going backward. He also said that I sounded schizophrenic singing along to my headphones constantly.

To assist my education, I procured a slim book from local publisher Chronicle Books called “Hit Me with Your Best Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Karaoke Domination,” by Raina Lee. It dealt with the history of karaoke (began in Japan in the late ‘60s as utagoe kissa, or singing cafes), fun factoids (South Korea sent North Korea ten karaoke machines in 2001 as part of a $900,000 peace package) and general karaoke tips.

I was particularly interested in the chapter about how to make your karaoke setlist. Bonnie and Bruce weren’t bad starts, but I needed to isolate and practice more beginner-level songs. I didn’t, however, want to be totally cliché. Does that mean Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes,” should be scrubbed off? So many songs, so little time.

Before venturing out into the harsh spotlight, I decided to test out another form of the karaoke experience — private rooms. With three friends in tow, I headed to Do Re Mi in Japantown in the late Saturday afternoon. I’d been before, but under the cover of darkness and much alcohol. It felt downright dirty to be getting a karaoke room in the sober daylight. Was this going to be very, very awkward?

Once inside the window-less room, it couldn’t have mattered less what time it was. I jumped on the mic first with a song that I thought would be easy — “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus. How many times have I sung along to that song? Hundreds? But the music started sooner than I thought and I instantly fell behind. I looked out, panicked, at the little crowd. They looked equally alarmed. When you bomb at karaoke, it doesn’t just affect you. It bums out your crew. The song ended and I dove into the couch.

Drinking is forbidden in karaoke rooms, so I’m not saying that alcohol played any part in loosening up and I can’t recommend packing a wine bottle and some cups. But things improved during our three-hour visit. Two songs seemed to lend themselves especially well to talk-singing: Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic.”

There are a number of great karaoke venues in city — Encore on California Street has a nice cruise-ship vibe, for instance — and a number of great karaoke nights at bars. I’m particularly fond of Mission dive Nap's, which has karaoke on the weekends. And for the sheer bonkers crowd, Bow Bow in Chinatown can’t be beat.

But if you want to be taken seriously as a performer, there’s only one venue in the city: The Mint, on Market Street. Arriving early is all-important, so I made a plan to meet some friends at 6 pm on a Wednesday. I was particularly pleased Jason and Kate were coming: they are two karaoke veterans, who actually met doing karaoke on the East Coast. If anyone could guide me through my first solo outing at The Mint, it’d be them.

When I arrived, the crowd was thin. A table of old men sat near the stage. A few lone karaoke wolves chatted with the bartender. They were clearly pros, the unlikely looking singers who pull a Susan Boyle, freaking you out with their voices. Thumbing nervously through the song book, I opted to wait until more troops arrived before submitting a song. I wrote down “Ironic” and “Dancing in the Dark” on two little slips of paper and balled both up in my palm.

Then I got a text from Jason. He and Kate were on the Bay Bridge. Maybe I should put in a mystery song for him?

A mystery song? That’s karaoke confidence.

Jason and Kate arrived as an older woman was tearing through “Love Hurts.” They immediately went to the song books and I reluctantly dropped “Ironic” in the KJ’s box. After fellow Bold Local Aaron did an emotional rendition of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” and Jason followed with an interpretation of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” (the mystery song), my song came up.

I’m not going to lie; it didn’t feel like a total win. My first impression was that I had no sense of volume. Was I whispering or shouting? Feeling out the audience reaction was also a bust, as I couldn’t really hear or see anything but the karaoke screen as I tried to speak-sing. Heather’s advice on relaxing and enunciating words rather than rushing them was lost in my attempts to keep pace with the lyrics. The minutes felt like years, but it also was a rush. I simultaneously felt intense relief coming off the stage and a desperate desire to go again.

By the end of the night, though, after seeing some truly amazing performances — “Cherry Bomb” singer, you blew my mind — I had a moment of clarity. I belong in the bleachers. Karaoke isn’t about just about the singer, it’s about the communal experience of expressing yourself through song; without a screaming audience, what’s the point? I’m going to continue working on songs but the best moments of the night came from participating as a karaoke fan rather than a karaoke star.

San Francisco is a karaoke-heavy town. Besides The Mint, check out Encore; it’s better for groups. Nap's might be the most divey, and Bow Bow is certainly the most crazy. Also, karaoke bar nights abound. Check out Shout at the Devil, every Thursday at Pissed Off Pete's.

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