Fear and Longing In Karaoke

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

“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.”

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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.

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

“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.

“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.”

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.

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