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“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.”
That’s even true on the final day at the Los Angeles County Fair, where 25 top males and 25 top females sing—and then rate the competitors of the opposite gender. It’s a near-daylong event, involving not only the “Crème de la Crème” adult competition, but also a showdown between Elvis impersonators and kid singers.
The Fairplex venue is big, and tensions are high, though few singers say they’re really in it for the prize of cash and karaoke equipment. It’s more about the recognition, which, historically, has been significant. Last year, male winner Abraham McDonald was spotted by a crew for the Oprah Winfrey Show. He got a chance to compete in—and then win—the show’s karaoke contest, which led to a recording contract and touring deal. This year’s contestants say the Oprah exposure has increased the number of people competing in the qualifiers.
But if success is amplified at the finals, so is failure. Santos spins a funny tale of going to the fair for four years in a row and losing each time. The first year, he flubbed the opening note to his song, badly. The second, he inadvertently rehearsed a version of a song that was different from the one he provided on CD. The third, a malfunction with his disc caused the lyrics for his song to not show up on the stage monitors, throwing off his rhythm. And last year, he says, he lost his voice. “I’m the king of choking at the fair,” he says. “It’s horrible.”
And yet Santos desperately wants to sing at the fair again. It’s a common theme among former competitors: They had fun at the final day, but they were let down—and now they can’t wait to try again, even if it means risking heartbreak. “I want to at least get there,” Johnson says urgently. “For some reason, I don’t know why, I just feel like I got to go out there and try to win it. I must be trying to prove a point to myself.”
KaraokeFest 2010 at the LA County Fair Fairplex, 1101 W. McKinley Ave., Pomona. Sun. For more info, visit www.karaokefest.com.
For Jennie Warren's video footage of karaoke competitors at the OC Fairgrounds, click here.
This article appeared in print as "Karaoke Kingdom: Fear and longing in the world of competitive karaoke."