Fear and Longing In Karaoke

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

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 Going to venues with limited, outdated song choices inspired him to start buying his own karaoke CDs.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.

From an outsider’s perspective, there doesn’t appear to be much to running a karaoke show. Take people’s requests, cue up songs, then let ’em sing. But for someone like Santos, there is, of course, more. Do you play music between karaoke performances? If so, what kind? How up-to-date is your song selection? How eclectic? (Santos, along with a few other local KJs, often pays to have recording studios produce karaoke versions of songs he can’t get elsewhere.) Is swearing in songs allowed? What kind of banter do you provide in between? Are there props? And how do you attract—and keep—a following?

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

Wednesdays at McCormick & Schmick’s are, understandably, rarely blockbuster nights for Bobby Vegas Entertainment. (Saturdays at the Azteca in Garden Grove are where the real parties are, Santos says.) Even so, as the night goes on, the night’s list grows beyond the initial three to more than a half-dozen, most of whom are familiar faces. At one point, a drunken Chicago businessman—no doubt staying in a nearby hotel—stumbles over and asks Santos to slot back-to-back Sinatra songs for the husband from the adorable, elderly married couple who show up each week. He slips Santos a $20 bill, which Santos takes. “There are only four singers on the rotation, and he’s one more singer away,” Santos explains. “Usually, I don’t take a bribe, but this guy’s not going to get the guy bumped up any further . . . and he gave me 20 bucks.”

With relatively few singers participating, Santos and Nova get regular turns at the mic. Santos’ song choices veer toward rock with a classic, eclectic bent; over the course of the night, he performs songs by Sublime, Ray LaMontagne and Frank Sinatra. His voice is clear, powerful—certainly good for a guitar band’s front man, but perhaps not Carnegie Hall material. Santos knows this. This year’s KaraokeFest qualifiers and semi-finals have delivered to him a fair share of defeats; Santos suspects it’s because the quality of competition has risen. So, he reasons, he’ll have a better chance to get to the finals later in the competition rather than earlier.

“This contest, especially this year, there are a lot of really good vocalists,” he says. “Like, I’m an okay vocalist. I can get by on my vocals. But those vocalists, they’re all going to win [qualifying rounds and semifinals] in the first week and a half, two weeks. Because they’re better singers. They’re just going to win.”

But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to win the contest, nor does it mean he thinks the “better singers” should. Performance quality isn’t all about technical talent, and besides, what is karaoke rewarding if not effort and je ne sais quois?

The seeming paradox lies at the heart of why competitions such as KaraokeFest can be so frustrating and alluring. The first year he competed, Santos lost in 11 straight semi-final battles in a row. He still talks about the episode with pain.

“The contest is a whole different animal; it can really screw with you,” he says. “Because I’ll come here, I’ll hang out at my friends’ shows, and everyone will tell you, ‘Oh, you’re the best one here’ or, ‘That’s so good!’ You start believing that you’re at a certain level. And then you get in the contest, and you get your ass kicked a bunch of times, and you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m not good. I suck.’

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