First off, I want to say I’m not here to try and make karaoke cool. I thought about writing a piece seeking to redeem karaoke, to make it fashionable and sexy – more akin to what Scarlett Johansson does in Lost In Translation than something you see down your local on a Friday night. Then I thought, NAAAHP. Because that really isn’t the point. Karaoke is not cool. Karaoke is not good. Karaoke is bad. It’s appalling. It’s downright shameful. That’s why I love it.
When it comes to karaoke, I’m like a woman possessed. Onstage, with a dirty mic and a substandard backing track, my evil alter ego comes to the fore. It’s a glorious release. I’m as polite as the next person on the bus – but get me in a karaoke joint, and a dark, ancient force rises and compels me to snatch a songbook and fill in at least five slips, pressing them into the DJ’s hand with a look of tortured hellfire.
Then, I will not rest. I will ask how many singers are ahead of me. I will fixate on the screen, waiting for my song title to appear. I will bribe the DJ with drinks to make my turn come sooner. I am not a team player, a sparkling conversationalist or even a half-decent friend at such times – indeed, friends have abandoned me in karaoke bars. I have a one-track mind (that track usually being Fever by Peggy Lee).
Onstage, I will test the mics to find the best. I will shush people during my performance. I will lambaste anyone who mounts the stage in an attempt to make my song “a duet”. I will stay until the bar closes and I will beg for “one more song”, when the staff are mopping the floor and yawning by the exit. It’s not pretty. And it’s not cool. But then, I’ve been haemorrhaging pretty and cool for years...
After a tough day, I’d wrench off my shoes, crack open a bottle of wine, fire up the machine and work my way through an entire CD, alone
It started when I was a teenager. During the mid-90s, my younger sister refused to walk down Market Street in Manchester with me during the month of December because I developed a habit of singing along to Christmas songs that were playing in the shops, at the top of my voice. Maybe I was sick of being strapped to a school desk. Maybe it was standard sibling cruelty. Regardless, I got a kick out of it. Even when people in shops stared and my sister ran away. (OK – especially when people in shops stared and my sister ran away.) It was thrilling, and liberating, to sing out loud, in public. I’d actually argue that’s the best case for karaoke, if one had to be made: that there is something intrinsically joyous about singing in the presence of other humans. Maybe that’s why it endures as a stalwart of the party scene – and why it is continuously branching out in new ways, like the current craze for lip-syncing.
Exhibit B: a literary festival, Norfolk, 2011. The music act on the Friday night was Adam Ant. I was dancing in the marquee. I may have had a few wines. After Adam Ant finished his set, he left the stage and the crowd roared for an encore. He obliged – but, as the band reassembled, one of the backing singers was missing. We waited for her to appear. Nothing. I stared at the lonely microphone, curled like a beckoning finger – and a flame inside me flickered into a blaze. (Well, what’s a girl to do? Never leave a mic hanging.) I ran to the side of the stage where, thanks to my Converse and the festival’s minimal security, I assumed my position in seconds. I saw a look of confusion cross Adam Ant’s face before he turned back to his mic and broke into the next number. I joined in. The other backing singer eyed me with bemusement, but Adam Ant’s manager passed me a pint of lager, which I took as consent – if not active encouragement. They may have turned me off at the sound desk – it was hard to tell and, at that point, it didn’t matter. Back at home, I recounted the tale to my boyfriend, a musician. He wasn’t impressed. “He’s a punk,” I said defensively, “he gets it.” To which, my boyfriend replied, “Poor bastard. Did you even know the harmonies?” “Harmonies?” I said, “I didn’t know the WORDS…”
It was my karaoke demoness in action again – the same demoness that dragged out the karaoke machine at every party and hogged it, even when children were present. The same demoness that terrorised a cricket club in Huddersfield at a friend’s 30th, when someone suggested a “sing-off”, and two of us were there alternating Blondie songs until 1am because – even though it was her birthday – I couldn’t let her win.
But it’s not just a catalogue of horrors. Karaoke has come to my aid in times of need. When I worked for a daily paper in my twenties, I’d often get home half-deranged with stress. A group of friends clubbed together and bought me my infamous karaoke machine. After a tough day, I’d wrench off my shoes, crack open a bottle of wine, fire up the machine and work my way through an entire CD, alone. By the time I was done, I felt like a new woman. Looking for a different way to relax? Book a karaoke pod in town, for one, on a Wednesday at 6pm, and belt out something by Destiny’s Child or Mama Cass to no one but you. Feel your lungs forcing air out through your mouth and into the space around you, filling it with sound, owning it – shaking the holy shit out of it. I can’t recommend it highly enough. And: no one need ever know.
My friend Sally is the only one I’ll share a stage with because we have perfected our rendition of Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson’s I Know Him So Well
Few friends share my passion. My friend Sally (pictured, on her hen do) is the only one I’ll share a stage with because we have perfected our rendition of Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson’s I Know Him So Well. We live in different cities these days, 250 miles apart, but when we get together, we inevitably end up singing Our Song, reassuring each other that, although months have passed, there is still the same bond – and flawless key change – between us. Karaoke is the beloved, aggressive pet I have to clear by new partners, too. I have dragged men into karaoke bars on first dates, to see if they can take it. If they can’t, there’s just no point.
There was one time when my karaoke demoness was almost too much for me, however. New Year’s Eve, 2001. I was drinking in the Manchester bar I usually worked in. People were getting up to sing, and it was billed as a free-for-all, but they wouldn’t let amateurs have a go, just local band members. The fiend in me took umbrage at this and, post-countdown, after they’d turned off the PA, I made my way up on to the stage, plugged the mic back in and began to sing My Baby Just Cares For Me – a cappella. Friends rushed forward, urging me to get down. I shooed them away and continued. Halfway through the second verse, I looked down to see the real cause of their concern: my left tit had worked its way out of my wrapover dress during my scramble. The line, “My baby don’t care for clothes” had never had such pertinence. I mean, it’d have been great if I’d planned it…
I recovered as best I could, but the next day I was looking into TEFL courses online, with a view to moving to Venezuela. Hungover, we’re all our own harshest critics. In hindsight, I am secretly proud of my karaoke malfunctions. I do karaoke to run with the wolves. It’s a chance to be my fiercest, most unapologetic self. Despicable Karaoke Me is always there, waiting for an outlet into wild abandon – and I’ll release her, regularly. Because I believe unleashing your inner demoness now and then is very good for your soul.
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth is published in paperback by Canongate