Fear and Longing In Karaoke

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

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?

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.

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

“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.’

“You sit in the contest, and you’re like, ‘Why do I do this?’” he says. “It’s supposed to be fun, but losing in any circumstance is not fun.”

*     *     *

It’s either serendipity or bad luck that places Sonia Marie and Merle Peterson in the No. 1 and No. 2 slots in the performance order at the TomKat Lounge in Buena Park on a Wednesday night in July. The two women are sitting together at a table halfway back in the dive bar that’s kept just cool enough by a few weak ceiling fans. Marie, a slight-figured esthetician in a sharp blue jacket and skirt, is up first with Deborah Cox’s “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here.” Peterson, a white-haired, jeans-wearing accountant, follows with “Almost Like Being in Love,” a 1940s-era show tune.

“First is the worst,” Marie says after her song. She surveys the room. “I’ll tell you, they’ve got some solid singers in here.” Marie nods at the five people at the table in front of her own, observing, “They’re new.”

She should know. Her first KaraokeFest was in 1995; Peterson’s was eight years ago. In the time since, the two have become acquainted with the other regulars, as well as with the various venues and KJs. Peterson even has a loose posse of singer friends known as “Merle’s Girls.” Each year, after KaraokeFest finishes, many of the newly bonded singers retreat to their neighborhood bars for the rest of the year. But come summertime, they’re all hanging out together again.

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