04th Jul2005

Back To The Minors: From A Cappella To Karaoke

by Will

Today’s Episode: “Back to the Minors”

So, let me tell you about the cutthroat world of karaoke: you’re only as good as your last performance. And, you see, my problem is that I never know when to stop…when to leave well-enough alone.

About every 6 months, I feel the need to get back in the saddle and sing. Since I no longer have an a cappella outlet, I usually find myself at karaoke. My normal place is Cafe Japone, ’cause Eduardo and I kinda “discovered” it a few yrs ago.

Anyway, I usually go around a holiday, and I go alone. As much as it may surprise some, I’m still very shy and get stagefright with the worst of them. I’d rather be with strangers than with friends.

So, i normally sing about 3 songs, and it’s that third one that I should always leave off the list. You see, my first two songs are “One More Try”, by George Michael and “Hello”, by Lionel Richie. Now, I’ve got to say that I’m not usually a favorite a karaoke. The key to success is picking a “crowd song” that everyone wants to sing, like “Sweet Caroline.” But I dont play by the rules. I’m the guy who has to sing the slow songs. But don’t knock my choices. I’ve almost had marriage proposals for singing those songs, I shit you not! But what happens is, I get off on the accolades from the first 2, and usually choose a bad song for #3. Normally, it’s song I’ve never done, but have enjoyed singing along to on the radio. And, normally, it bombs, and it’s amazing how quickly your “fans” turn on you.

Tonight was one of those nights.

I was bored as crap, Shelly was having a “girls night”, and nobody else was returning my calls. So, I found myself at Cafe Japone. I got my drink, and chose my songs. Sure enough, I chose “One More Try” and “Hello”. Due to lack of shuffle, they ended up back to back. At first, the crowd didn’t know what to make of me. The night had been dominated by some kind of South American summit, and they had commandeered the playlist. My songs came on, and they warmed up to me. Yup, still had it. But I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I HAD to choose a risky third.

While I was choosing my comeback track, this chick came out of nowhere and kicked ASS on Leann Rimes’ “How Do I Live”. Now, that’s also my Karaoke Achilles Heel: competition. There are 2 kinds of people at karaoke: 1) The Crowd Song Drunk and 2) The Competitor. You see, I usually enter the arena as the latter, but it’s only good when everyone else is the former. When another #2 enters, it’s “Oh, shit.” It’s kinda like when another Black guy would enter that frat party back at Cornell (C’mon, y’all have seen “Not Another Teen Movie!). Anyway, it blows the wind out of my sails and makes me all self-conscious.

So, she knocked the song out of the park, and the lines were drawn in the sand. It was between me and her, and she had the advantage that she was in the party of South Americans. Her fanbase was loaded (Nice, play on words, Will). So, it was time for my encore, which I had already decided would be my final song of the night. Go out on top, right? WRONG. What did I choose? “Flying Without Wings”, commonly known as a Ruben Studdard song.

Now, I say “commonly known” because the Ruben version is the one that 9 out of 10 people know. But anyone with knowledge of European pop (and I figured the South Americans might know this, too) knows that it was originally a #1 hit by Irish boyband, Westlife. Now, this was my first mistake: choosing an obscure song. My next mistake was trying to reinterpret it. I’ve always hated Ruben’s version. I felt he played it safe. So I decided to sing the Westlife version, but the backing track was for Ruben. Also consider the fact that there were different chord progressions, and it’s not like I had practiced it before. I was singing without wings, and didn’t have a parachute.

So, I got up, did my thing, but my thing wasn’t good enough. Early into the song, the South Americans were booing me, as if I’d scored in the wrong goal or something. I persevered, and finished the song. My reward? A lone clap from someone in a corner. Everyone else had either intensified their conversation or just forgotten that I was even up there.

Now, let me tell you about my fans. There was this “reverse 3’s company thing” going on next to me at the bar. This chick was there with her 2 gay guy friends, and they were just chillin’ with some sushi. After my first set, they were like, “You were awesome!” I went on to tell ’em it was only because of a cappella. They asked where I’d gone to school/sung, and I told ’em Cornell. The girl had actually heard of Last Call, and I instantly had friends. Another guy friend showed up, and he leans over and says, “So, I hear you’re incredible at this”. Now, this was following Clone Leann had done her song, so I wasn’t feeling too confident. I told him, “Well, it’s really all about your song choice.” Man, was I sorry to be right. My song choice, “Flying without Wings” was NOT a good one, and my new friends did not notice me again. In fact, you could tell they were going out of their way to not really look at me, so as not to have it be awkward. Funny how that works…

So, I got my check, which took forever, and I walked out into the DC night. I only do this every 6 months because of nights like this. It takes me that long to get back on the horse again. I wondered if I still had it, I found out that I did, and then I took it too far. During the 6 months, I’ll go to the redneck karaoke and hone my skills. The “minors”, if you will. You see, at redneck karaoke, everyone’s a drunken crowd singer. You might get the “pro”, but he’s not competing. He just brings his own CDs, and REALLY gets into the songs. But it’s all about him, and no one else in the bar. It’s a good place to get your courage back because your ability to make friends and fans is directly proportional to how drunk you’re all willing to get. And that’s never a problem. DC karaoke is chock full of former a cappella, Capitol Hill interns, looking for one last shot at glory. And they always kick my ass. I don’t know if it’s really a vocal thing, or if it’s the thoughts in the back of my head saying, “They have great jobs and great lives. They don’t NEED this. They’re doing this for fun.” I wish I could say the same, but I put all my eggs in this basket ’cause I’m an attention whore. I NEED this. I think back to the college days when I was singing and happy, and the world was my oyster. I was gonna rule the world when I graduated. Well, I kinda ruled a department at H&M for a while, but that was about it.

Karaoke, to me, is a test to prove that my college career was not in vain. Most people use college to network and study; generally plan for their futures. I, on the other hand, used college for singing. It brought me confidence and took the stress off, but a cappella’s what consumed my college career. So, unlike a graduate degree or some specialized skill, what I took away from college was singing. And karaoke is the only place I can get any use out of this. Wow, I guess college WAS in vain. I know, some of you are gonna say, “Don’t sell yourself short, Will.” And, I guess you’re right. But, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta go practice. I’ve got a rematch in December…