Since first moving to Portland five years ago, I have developed a highly particular sensibility about the proletariat performance art that is karaoke. I could write a serious and lengthy essay about karaoke culture, protocol, song quality, and etiquette, and will, but not here.
The other night two friends and I hit my nearest & dearest Tier One(1) joint, Chopsticks III How Can Be Lounge, with the express purpose of singing only songs we'd never sung before. We had all hit a rut in our repertoires and needed a safe, shame-free space to experiment; the remote Chopsticks III on a rainy Monday night seemed like a good bet.
Boy was it ever. It was the three of us, the KJ, and occasionally Jesús (a compact dude in black nylon track pants who had a golden, rumbly, achingly beautiful voice that instantly halted our conversation every time.) Basically, we owned the place. In two and a half hours, the three of us combined sang at least 22 songs, most of which we had never sung before. I sang nine. Nine! When do you ever get to do that many outside of Japan and/or a private joint?
Some we failed miserably, some failed us miserably, some turned out great.
WINNERS 'N' LOSERS:
"Makin' Whoopee," Dr. John & Ricki Lee Jones
We kicked off the night with a duet. Alas, this version gelded away the totally gay intro(2) that I love so much in the Ella Fitzgerald version, as well as the "W-H-double-O-P-double-E" at the end, but the duetability was ample consolation. The magenta-lettered part sung by TJO a la Billie Holiday on helium made me double over a few times. An ideal start-out-the-night song. Standards always deliver--maybe because they're actually designed to be performed live, not as music video backing tracks.
Worth doing again? Yes! Staple-worthy.
(Side note: Sesame Street has a version called "Eatin' Cookie.")
"Bus Stop," The Hollies
This song is low, but it's fucking awesome. With its terse lyrics, punchy beat, concision, and bracing balance of lovey content with ominous minor-key melody, "Bus Stop" stands up to karaoke's unforgiving strip-search of song structure. One of those songs you always hear on the radio but never pay attention to and then when you actually do you can't believe you overlooked it for so long, which is the ideal kind of karaoke song for singer and audience alike.
Again? Definitely, pitched up a few steps.
Originally we were going to do a Whitney rock block, but then we decided that was too ambitious. We switched to Madonna. Wrong choice: Madonna's apparent vocal mediocrity is deceptive. "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," high notes and all, is eminently more singable than this fanged Tigger of a pop song. I could barely catch my breath much less hit the bungeeing notes. Wtf? Wasn't this recorded before ProTools?
Again? My companions staggered through "Borderline" and "Express Yourself" and we jointly swore never again as long as we lived.
"Solsbury Hill," Peter Gabriel, live version
I did not intend to choose the meta-karaokical "live" version, but in the end I was glad I did. That cavernous arena sound, the distant cheers of the fans, the way the music dramatically drops out entirely for your extra-emphatic "Boom, boom, boom"--close your eyes, and you're headlining WOMAD.
Warning: at the end there are like six screens that say NA NA NA NA NEE NEE NA NA NA FLY LITTLE BIRDIE NA NA NEE ad infinitum. Best be a little drunk.
"I Can't Say No," from the musical Oklahoma
This, I immediately realized, is a poor choice when you are one of a small handful of breeding-age females in a bar.
"Pure," The Lightning Seeds
I know nothing about this band except that my best friend Amy had the cassingle in her bedroom sometime on the '80s/'90s border, and we loved it. A slightly mawkish confection, but I like its sweet wistful Britishness.
Again? Possibly. I had to sing it an octave higher which made it a little twee.
"Leather and Lace," Stevie Nicks and Don Henley
I have technically sung this before but Tara had not so it was fair game. She Stevied, I Donned. Resplendent. The word "lace" became quite lascivious. Most singable of Stevie Nicks' songs, i.e. not tenor range.
"Go Your Own Way," Fleetwood Mac
At this point I was feeling the whiskey and therefore only remember this as triumphant.
Again? Perhaps for a Fleetwood Mac rock block.
Finally, Leslie declared we each got to fall back on a feel-good staple to go out on. I gratefully and promptly submitted "Fernando" by Abba, which embodies some of the finest karaoke qualities: captivating melody (of course, it's Abba), dynamic variety (soft verses/soaring chorus), a narrative (historical, no less!), not too repetitive, no long instrumental passages. Plus pan-flutes.
By the time we left, my throat was sore, and it was only 11:15. Victory.
(1) Tier One: huge book, great sound system, fair and friendly KJ, reasonably priced drinks. These include the heavy hitters of Portland: Chopsticks II and III (where is I?), the Ambassador, the Galaxy, and the Alibi, which has a mediocre sound system that turns the vocal levels too high and skimps on reverb, but compensates for this with a tropical setting and free leis. I haven't fully fleshed out this rating system yet, but the Egyptian Club is at best Tier Three, dragged down by their patently Unfair KJ, who unforgivably shuffles slips at whim and plays favorites.
(2) Every time I hear that march from Lohengrin
I am always on the outside looking in
Maybe that's why I can see the funny side
When I see somebody's brother take a bride.
Weddings make a lot of people sad
But if you're not the one they're not so baaaad....
(OMG ME TOO!)