Fear and Longing In Karaoke

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

“Karaoke is a family,” Peterson say. “And if you don’t go to KaraokeFest, you’re missing the family reunion.”

Marie found success at the 1995 KaraokeFest. Back then, the competition was judged by a panel of music-industry professionals—not other contestants, as it is today. She came away with the second-place prize: an opportunity to work with a musical group and a manager, perhaps leading to a recording contract with Arista Records. Her youngest daughter, who had performed with a Disney program for young vocalists, got involved with her mother’s group. But only a few months later, Marie’s daughter died. For years after that, she associated singing—and karaoke—with tragedy. She certainly couldn’t compete.

Earlier this decade, though, Marie came back to KaraokeFest. The rush and the relationships lured her. “It’s just the adrenalin,” she says. “It’s the people. It’s the camaraderie you get out there. I do it for the people that I haven’t seen in a year.”

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

When she returned, though, the contest had changed drastically from the one that had originally afforded her the chance to make good on her long-submerged dream of a professional singing career. Marie isn’t shy about what she thinks is a problem.

“Take a look around this room at who has one of these,” she says, gesturing to the paper ballot she’s holding. “Notice who’s really paying attention.” As a singer stumbles through a Top 40 hit, a good number of the dozen-and-a-half-or-so competitors in the audience have their eyes on friends, phones or food—not the TomKat stage. “And they’re not even drunk yet,” Marie adds. “They’re in their own little worlds. They’re not very respectful. But when they get up, they want everyone to pay attention.”

There are rules designed to prevent the judges from getting too distracted. KaraokeFest reserves the right to eject contestants who get noticeably intoxicated. No one who’s judging is supposed to leave the room, even for the bathroom or a cigarette, when others are singing. Of course, this isn’t so easily—or frequently—enforced. Often, a competitor will notify the on-site Karaoke Scene representative about someone at the back of the room who has been chatting away instead of paying attention to the singers. The most that usually happens is the KJ will get on the mic and remind the entire room to be respectful to the singers.

Marie looks up from tapping on her phone and admits that even she is part of the problem. “We’re not paying attention to her,” she says, referring to the performer onstage. “It’s not fair.”

“Well, I’m not paying my full attention,” Peterson counters. “But I’ve heard this song, and I’ve heard it done better.”

In some ways, the problem of paying-attention-or-not reveals how un-karaoke a karaoke competition like this can be. At a regular barroom karaoke night, bad singing can easily be ignored—say, by ordering another drink. There’s not much need for spectators to make any kind of judgment about the quality of singing onstage. Here, though, criticism can be tough.

“I have friends who think they’re really good,” Marie says. “They can’t hold a note.” She looks toward the stage at a girl in jean shorts who’s warbling. “She thinks she’s good. She’s up there, and God bless her. But how good of a judge is she going to be?”

Each judge has a different idea about what exactly should be judged, as well. Marie says she takes attire heavily into account; a performer, she says, shouldn’t be wearing flip-flops. Peterson seems to value song choice. And both are suspicious about the table of newbies in front of them. It’s quite possible, they say, that one of the singers brought in friends to compete merely to skew the vote count in that person’s favor.

It’s easy to imagine this kind of fault-finding has developed after a few bitter, seemingly undeserved defeats. But at the end of the night, when it comes time to read the results of who were the TomKat’s top singers, the order is familiar: Marie’s name is read first, then Peterson’s.

*     *     *

For Karaoke Scene publisher Peter Parker, tough moments are part of the deal with karaoke. Part of its appeal, even.

“It’s a very American form of entertainment, very democratic with a small ‘d,’” Parker says of his magazine’s subject. “You have people of all walks of life who are all sharing that same fear, that little bit of hurt, that are all taking that chance, that little edgy feeling that you get. And it kind of wipes away all the other barriers of the world.”

A former lounge musician with a great gray beard, Parker bought Karaoke Scene in the early 2000s. With it came KaraokeFest. But each year, it was marred by allegations that the competition’s preselected judges were biased or incompetent. And so, one day, Parker says, “the clouds parted,” and he was struck by the idea of having the competitors rate one another. “Our judging is the best system there is,” he says. “It’s all about the singers; there are no kingmakers. I don’t want a say, and I don’t get a say.”

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