First-time karaoke singers almost always insist upon getting drunk before getting onstage. “Not until my umpteenth beer/cosmo/Jäger shot,” they will tell you in strident tones. It’s approximately the same reaction you would get if you invited them to poke an enraged bear with a short stick. Because in a way, even though it does not involve being mauled by a wild animal, to the first-timer karaoke feels physically dangerous.
Partly it’s because you know getting onstage means people will look at you. If a single person is looking at you, fine, because you can look right back at them. See how they like it. But when more than one person, when a crowd looks at you, and particularly when you are expected to justify that attention in some fashion -- looking becomes watching. And being watched is terrifying. You know that even if you look back at one of the people watching you, this still leaves two or ten or a hundred other people still un-looked-back-at. In essence, they see you but you do not see them. We are built so that this gives us the jeebies.
Alcohol supposedly gives us the bravery to face the jeebies head-on. Unfortunately, it also takes away things like motor control and lucidity of speech, both of which you tend to want more of onstage rather than less. To walk the liquid-courage-to-clumsiness tightrope is a balancing act.
But that first time really is kind of a bitch, and it seems overly demanding to expect people to go through it with wholly unassailed sobriety. If you’re anything like me, the first time you get up to sing karaoke your throat goes Sahara dry despite your quickly-downed, insisted-upon second beer just because it’s the least convenient thing to happen right before you are expected to put your voice through a microphone. The microphone does for voices what the microscope does for blood-borne diseases.
If you’re anything like me, you’re also concerned about not looking like a colossal squib of a human being in front of the brand-new older and wiser coworkers from your brand-new first-post-graduation job, even though these coworkers have gotten you into this mess in the first place (“It’s my birthday, Alicia, you have to sing something!”). You were careful to pick a song with a leisurely rhythm -- Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” -- where conveniently the nervous glaciation of your limbs could be mistaken for hip sangfroid. You know the secret to being before an audience is ignoring the audience (because you worry you are not one of those performers who can magically cradle an audience in the warm cozy palm of their hand).
And now they’re calling your name and you get up there and for one all-white second you go totally blank on how the song starts, and then the song does start and you remember it all again.
So you close your eyes, and you start to sing, and now that's your voice coming out of that speaker. And you want to actually be able to hear more of it against the background of the music, so you sing a little louder.
The swingy Motown rhythm is incredibly easy to slip into, and before you get to the first chorus you are starting to kind of have fun with the way you have to listen for timing and pitch and watch the words on the screen and make them mean something as you sing them and breathe at all the right times and make sure you’re not too loud or too soft or blowing those machine-gun puffs of air into the head of the microphone.
By the time you hit the wistful bridge of the song -- How well do I remember / the look that was in his eyes -- you have relaxed enough to really put some trumpet into your voice. You can also see your coworkers’ eyes all round with surprise because you’re not at all the kind of person they expect to have a trumpet in them even a little bit. You’re miles past the jeebies now, and you hoist open all the windows in your soul and close your eyes and belt out the big finish and all at once the song is over and the applause hits you and it flows in those open windows like a cool breeze on a hot day and you wonder what on earth you are going to sing next --
I know that there are people who never try it, or who make one attempt but remain unimpressed and unaddicted, like with cocaine. But for the rest of us, that first hit -- of karaoke, I mean -- worms its evil way into the marrow. Ultimately, that initial fear turns out to be not so much the fear of being looked at, but rather the fear of being seen through. All your faults and secrets are there with you on stage, and they feel terrifyingly visible. However, on a karaoke stage you are safe from too penetrating a gaze, since the song that you are singing is not really or not entirely yours. This is an important difference from, for example, open-mic night performances, where the singer is performing something they have labored to construct. With karaoke, you do not produce a song: you temporarily inhabit one. The songs in the book belong to everybody in the audience as well as the present singer. At least if you are a fraud at singing Aerosmith, you have some excuse.
Most of what the performer does onstage is to say at length to the audience: I love this song, don’t you? Because here is the real secret to karaoke: you must love something about your song. Love sincerely (Norah Jones) or abashedly (Hall & Oates) or defiantly (Pat Benatar). Love the way the melody feels in your throat, love the words you clothe in the breath from your lungs, love the way your whole body -- voice and heart and limbs -- becomes an instrument upon which your song is played. Love, if nothing else, the effect your song can have upon the listening crowd: give them something new, or better yet something that has slipped their mind, something they have forgotten they love too. Nothing buoys the heart like a cheering karaoke audience when the singer has picked a song they also love.
This is how karaoke destroys the loneliness of anonymity without foisting the burdens of specialness upon the singer. No matter how well someone sings, at the end of the song they are going to hand the microphone to somebody else. The normally rigid boundary between on- and offstage is here a permeable membrane, and the effect is a climate of approbation not unlike that of the grade school Christmas pageant, only with drinking and swears. Our cast: the heartbreakingly earnest middle-aged man singing 80’s soft rock love ballads, the reckless punk kid with a mohawk who secretly wants to be Billy Idol, the thirty-something woman who has spent most of her life trying conquer an inherent shyness, the college kids finally released from the horrors of midterm exams, the siren, the charmer, the would-be rapper, and the suave older gentleman who sings Sinatra as naturally as breathing. Performer and audience here are not fixed definitions, but roles that can be slipped into or out of as necessary.
This is why the audience will always clap: as long as the singer remains onstage for the length of the song, they have succeeded. We have not bought a ticket for this, and we do not expect training or talent, though we may be delighted by either. All that we require is an effort in good faith. Karaoke may be the world’s only form of art based on good intentions.