Fear and Longing In Karaoke

The contestants in KaraokeFest battle stage fright, self-doubt and one another

Either the coffee at Nadine’s Irish Mist in Sunset Beach is too bitter, or Chell Johnson needs to do something with her hands. Sitting at a table in the center of the bar on a Monday night in July, the Long Beach secretary’s coffee comes in a diner mug on a white saucer. She asks the waitress what kind of creamer is in the button package on the side. It’s half-and-half. Johnson dumps it into the cup.

Then she takes a sip. She pours in sugar—a lot of sugar. She sips again. More sugar. This cycle repeats few more times.

Toward the back of the room, on a slightly elevated stage, MC “Lonnie B.” reads a list of names and numbers. Johnson will be the 13th of 16 people competing in that night’s qualifying round for KaraokeFest 2010. Thirteen—that sound lucky to Johnson? “I hope so,” she murmurs, dubious.

Jennie Warren
Bobby Santos, competitor and KJ
Jennie Warren
Bobby Santos, competitor and KJ

The organizers of KaraokeFest—the same people who put out Cypress-based Karaoke Scene Magazine—say the yearly singing competition is the biggest in Southern California. It’s certainly sprawling, enlisting 25 venues from Ventura to San Diego to host qualifying and semifinal rounds for its “Crème de la Crème” singing competition. Some contestants manage to make it to each of the participating dives, bowling alleys, sports bars and festival stages in a year. Many compete in at least a few. Most take the contest a lot more seriously than the average casual karaoke consumer might suspect [see “Not the Same Old (Karaoke) Songs,” June 10].

A song or two into the start of the night’s lineup, a plate of thick-cut steak fries comes to Johnson’s table. These, like the coffee, need augmentation, but Johnson can’t get the ketchup to come out of its bottle. She shakes and jostles and thwacks the container to no avail. This goes on for a few minutes. What’s this about? Nerves? Johnson’s eyes flick toward the stage, and she answers slowly. “Yeah,” she says, shifting in her windbreaker. “I actually didn’t know I was hungry.”

It has been a decade since Johnson last competed in a KaraokeFest. Back then, she did well enough to sing at the final showcase at the Los Angeles County Fair, which is where the finals will again be held on Sunday. But she ended up losing there, and that defeat—coupled with the mental strain brought on by that competition and others—led her to swear off singing contests entirely. “I said, ‘You know what? I need to leave contests alone because it’s just not going to work,’” she remembers. “After you tend to keep losing awhile, it tends to keep bothering you.”

For most people, the idea of karaoke as a stress creator may seem strange. After all, the nearly 40-year-old pastime is commonly seen as a stress reliever, a drinking-time distraction, an excuse for bar patrons to embarrass themselves and bond over a shared, schmaltzy sing-along. Japan gave birth to the idea as a way for overworked businessmen to forget work. But while karaoke largely remains a wildly popular barroom escape—Karaoke Scene maintains a database of more than 650 venues in Southern California—the fact remains that it entails performance. And for most people, performance doesn’t come easily.

That’s even true for the diehards, the regulars such as Johnson who read Karaoke Scene, compete in KaraokeFest and go to a few karaoke nights each week. Johnson distinctly remembers the terror she felt at the prospect of performing in church as a child. “If I was leading a song with the choir, when they start playing, before I even get to sing, I’m already shaking half to death, I’m already crying, and then I turn the microphone off so nobody hears me,” she says. “And then once they think I’m supposed to be singing, they’re scrambling to try to find out why they can’t hear me on the microphone.”

At Nadine’s, nerves also show up at a table closer to the stage than Johnson’s. Bobby Santos—nom de chant “Bobby Vegas”—frets more energetically. Wearing plastic-framed glasses, a driving cap, a cross pendant and a short-sleeved button-up shirt, the 43-year-old looks the part of a rockabilly hipster as he chats in quick bursts, waiting for his turn to sing. He explains that he spent the past weekend competing in a slew of venues only to be repeatedly locked out of the top six qualifying spots. “Right now, I’m a little nervous,” he says, flashing a wide but gritted smile. “There’ve been a lot of good singers.”

Santos’ name is called. He spits out a wad of gum and sticks it on a coaster before bounding onto the stage. “Who likes the Beatles?” he asks into the microphone as the opening licks to “Come Together” float from the sound rig. “Good—because this is Aerosmith’s version.”

His take on the song is a strutting, arena-rattling thing. He swoops his face close to the camera broadcasting the show online and mugs for it. “God, he’s so shy,” says Kelly Lynne Harris, a singer at his table. Juanita Mankuleiyo, another singer with them, chuckles.

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