Fear and Longing In Karaoke

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

Santos finishes and bounces down to his seat.

“Nicely done,” Mankuleiyo says.

Santos looks relieved. “Beer me,” he says and takes a swig from his drink.

Chell Johnson, the secretary who sings
Jennie Warren
Chell Johnson, the secretary who sings
Sonia Marie pauses
Jennie Warren
Sonia Marie pauses

Johnson’s up soon after. She has shed her windbreaker, revealing a top with sequined, sparkly sides. It appears her jitters are gone. She begins to slightly sashay for “Blues In the Night.” “My momma done told me . . . A man is a two-face . . .” Her voice is clear and husky. There’s a sly smile on her face between lines. The performance looks effortless.

Fran Emmons sits close to the stage, watching, and occasionally glancing down at a sheet of paper. In the dim bar, she has clipped a book light to a Budweiser pint glass that’s holding ice water with lemon. The light helps her check the lineup to make sure the singers are performing in the order that she selected prior to the show by randomly drawing sheets of paper. Emmons, a representative for Karaoke Scene (she does the magazine’s pictures page) is there to monitor the contest. Lonnie B. is the public face of the show, but Emmons is watching him—and, of course, the contestants.

“It’s not like they’re close, personal friends, but you get to know them,” she says of the contestants. “If you stick around and get to know the people, they all have a story.”

Perhaps it’s a testament to the diehards’ commitment to the art of karaoke that KaraokeFest can work as it does: It is judged entirely by the people who compete in it. At the end of each night, singers turns in their ballots listing their top six picks for that night’s winners. They can’t vote for themselves; in theory, if the group is large enough, biased voting for friends will be canceled out. And so after the 16th singer at Nadine’s finishes, the contestants—Johnson, Santos, Lynne Harris and Mankuleiyo included—turn in their voting forms, and Emmons tallies them up. She writes the winners on a piece of paper (there are usually six, unless there’s a tie, in which case, as on this night, there are seven) and hands them to Lonnie while the singers chat somewhat nervously.

“I cannot take another loss,” Santos says, squirming. The first four names are called, and he’s not among them. “I’m screwed,” he says. The fifth—not him. Then comes No. 6: “Bobby Santos!” With a yip, Santos jumps up and bounds into the lineup for a picture.

Johnson is called next. She’s beaming.

*   *   *

A few weeks later, in the wood-paneled and brass-adorned Pilsner Room of McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant in Irvine, Santos explains the central dilemma of events like KaraokeFest. “Competition is totally different from karaoke,” he says. “Because karaoke’s supposed to be fun. Contests, sometimes, are not fun.”

It’s a Wednesday night, and Santos, along with a pierced-lip assistant who goes by the name Mike Nova, is running one of the six karaoke shows that his Bobby Vegas Entertainment hosts each week. That’s not to say Santos himself hosts six shows; in fact, he has an associate at one in Long Beach that runs at the same time as the McCormick & Schmick’s show.

Early in the night, Santos apologizes that things aren’t more swinging. Only three people have signed up to sing, including a married elderly couple who have been coming to Santos’ shows at McCormick’s since he started a few years ago. “We’ve got three books; we’ve got three singers. Do the math,” he booms genially into the microphone. “There’s plenty of room for you to sing if you’re so inclined . . . and it doesn’t matter if you suck. Bobby Vegas will do his magic and make you sound better.”

Nights like these are what most people think of when they think of karaoke: a host—referred to in diehard jargon as a “Karaoke Jockey” or KJ—encouraging bar patrons to drop their inhibitions and sing the tune that has been stuck in their head all day. But Santos is playing with fire, in a way, by even acknowledging that a karaoke singer might suck. It’s not that all karaoke singers think they’re good; it’s that on a Wednesday night, at a non-competitive show, judgment isn’t even part of the equation. Even the girl who whimpers her way through the acoustic, extended version of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” gets an approving remark from Santos: “That was outstanding!”

By day, Santos, a Whittier resident, works with developmentally disabled adults, as he has done for nearly two decades. Karaoke, though, came into his life 12 years ago, when a then-girlfriend worked as a bartender at a bar that held karaoke nights. He had never aspired to sing, he says; he just liked doing it in the shower and in the car. When he decided to perform at the bar, his girlfriend’s advice to him was this: “Don’t suck.”

Talking to Santos, you get the sense karaoke was, for a long time, merely one of the many things he did while out partying. He played darts quite seriously for while; he and his buddies visited Vegas so frequently that he picked up a nickname; there was a period in his life in which he hung out regularly at the industry night for porn stars and producers at a Burbank bar. But karaoke became an investment. Going to venues with limited, outdated song choices inspired him to start buying his own karaoke CDs. Four years ago, he started hosting shows with a friend. Some time later, someone he knew was shutting down a karaoke company and selling the equipment. Santos bought half of the stuff, and Bobby Vegas Entertainment was born.

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