I still remember the first time I lost my karaoke virginity. The song was the Righteous Brothers’ timeless ballad “Unchained Melody”, it was roundabout 1994, and I was having lunch at a restaurant in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. It was just a regular restaurant and regular lunch except that diners would pause their meal to grab the mic and croon away at their table. At that point in my life I was a little shy and probably wouldn’t normally have put myself in the spotlight like that. But one of my dining companions, a white Australian guy who worked as an Indonesian teacher, earned a ovation from the patrons with his sterling rendition of an Indonesian ballad, so I figured I was it was a sufficiently supportive environment for me to give it a go. But while it was fun, it threatened to be a once-off. Because like many young adults, life for me back then was all about being cool. Or more correctly, at least trying to be cool. But karaoke? Filled as it was with earnest yet horribly performed renditions of the cheesiest power ballads imaginable, set to odd Engrish lyrics and footage of couples exchanging meaningful glances while walking slowly along the beach… no, karaoke was definitely not cool. So even though I enjoyed singing, I subconsciously decided karaoke was not something worth me doing.
Growing up predominantly among white folks, it was a long time before I came anywhere near a karaoke machine. Back then, all I knew was that it was some weird thing I’d seen in movies that Japanese businessmen did. So instead I did all the usual things the young white folks around me did, most of which seemed to involve a pub somehow. But then somehow I fell in with a bunch of Chinese people, and was thrust into a world where karaoke was no longer considered utterly daggy, and was suddenly a viable option for a night’s entertainment.
And a weird world it was, where my preconceived notions about what music males were meant to like were to be severely challenged. One time I was invited by a Chinese friend, who also brought along a posse of guys who I knew from the basketball court; they were Vietnamese dudes from Springvale, they had fringes that hung dangerously low over their eyes, and I was nervous around them because I figured they must have been in some kind of gang. But as soon as they arrived at karaoke and started selecting only songs by Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, I realised they clearly weren’t as scary as I had first thought.
Back then, karaoke in Melbourne hadn’t really expanded much beyond Chinatown, and it was easy to make some generalisations about the various people who frequented the lounges and bars that hosted this peculiar pastime. The Chinese international students who would sing nothing but Canto-pop; the old-timers with their Tom Jones and Sinatra; and the groups of young Aussie blokes who needed to spend the first hour drinking before they could muster up the Dutch courage to unleash their inner pop star. Even young hoodlums hung out there, and one of my first trips to a karaoke bar was marred by a nasty brawl between two groups of patrons in which the police were called. It struck me as odd that one minute a guy could be singing the falsetto bit of “How Deep Is Your Love” and the next minute he was trying to smash a bottle over someone else’s head.
As I delved deeper into the karaoke universe, I discovered even more avenues in which to get my song on. First, there were Chinese restaurants that wheeled out the karaoke machine after a certain hour, usually when it was too late to put people off their food. Next, we came across the wonders of the private room, where we no longer had to listen to the bad singing in the lounge from people we didn’t know, and could focus more on the bad singing from people we did know. Finally, I discovered that once you reach a certain critical mass of Asian friends, you are bound to know at least one who has a karaoke machine in their own house. (In fact, if these Asian friends happen to be Filipino, chances are they all have a machine at home, although it also brings the challenge of having to wrestle with their Mum for control of the mic.) Hanging out at your friend’s place and using their home system has the disadvantage of usually being somewhat limited in song choice, but has the huge advantage of not costing you anything.
It should be stated that having a home karaoke system is a sure-fire way to make your neighbours loathe you. Unless of course your neighbours are old and hard of hearing, or if they are Asian, in which case they are probably too busy singing karaoke in their own house to notice. At some point, my transition from karaoke novice to fully-fledged aficionado was complete. One sign was when my friends and I started referring to karaoke merely as “K”. Another sign was when I realised I knew all the words to a song by Michael Learns to Rock, who are one of those European soft-rock bands that never had a hit anywhere except in Asia, which has led to them having a song in every karaoke bar in the entire world. Of course it might help you enjoy karaoke if you can sing; however there seems to be a golden rule in every group that the person most enthusiastically hogging the mic also has to be the one with the least ability to hold a tune. What doesn’t really help is having taste in music which is in any way “cool”, because if you only like cool bands then karaoke is likely to be torture for you. Your average K system is unlikely to contain anything by Arcade Fire or Sigur Ros, but If karaoke has taught me anything, it is that there is time and place for everything. By day, I can maintain my guise of being a music snob who only listens to “authentic” music; but by night I can sing my heart out to Bon Jovi’s “Living On A Prayer”, as if it was written just for me. Watch out for the key-change towards the end though, that bit’s a killer.