Fear and Longing In Karaoke

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

Either the coffee at Nadine’s Irish Mist in Sunset Beach is too bitter, or Chell Johnson needs to do something with her hands. Sitting at a table in the center of the bar on a Monday night in July, the Long Beach secretary’s coffee comes in a diner mug on a white saucer. She asks the waitress what kind of creamer is in the button package on the side. It’s half-and-half. Johnson dumps it into the cup.

Then she takes a sip. She pours in sugar—a lot of sugar. She sips again. More sugar. This cycle repeats few more times.

Toward the back of the room, on a slightly elevated stage, MC “Lonnie B.” reads a list of names and numbers. Johnson will be the 13th of 16 people competing in that night’s qualifying round for KaraokeFest 2010. Thirteen—that sound lucky to Johnson? “I hope so,” she murmurs, dubious.

Jennie Warren
Bobby Santos, competitor and KJ
Jennie Warren
Bobby Santos, competitor and KJ
Chell Johnson, the secretary who sings
Jennie Warren
Chell Johnson, the secretary who sings
Sonia Marie pauses
Jennie Warren
Sonia Marie pauses

The organizers of KaraokeFest—the same people who put out Cypress-based Karaoke Scene Magazine—say the yearly singing competition is the biggest in Southern California. It’s certainly sprawling, enlisting 25 venues from Ventura to San Diego to host qualifying and semifinal rounds for its “Crème de la Crème” singing competition. Some contestants manage to make it to each of the participating dives, bowling alleys, sports bars and festival stages in a year. Many compete in at least a few. Most take the contest a lot more seriously than the average casual karaoke consumer might suspect [see “Not the Same Old (Karaoke) Songs,” June 10].

A song or two into the start of the night’s lineup, a plate of thick-cut steak fries comes to Johnson’s table. These, like the coffee, need augmentation, but Johnson can’t get the ketchup to come out of its bottle. She shakes and jostles and thwacks the container to no avail. This goes on for a few minutes. What’s this about? Nerves? Johnson’s eyes flick toward the stage, and she answers slowly. “Yeah,” she says, shifting in her windbreaker. “I actually didn’t know I was hungry.”

It has been a decade since Johnson last competed in a KaraokeFest. Back then, she did well enough to sing at the final showcase at the Los Angeles County Fair, which is where the finals will again be held on Sunday. But she ended up losing there, and that defeat—coupled with the mental strain brought on by that competition and others—led her to swear off singing contests entirely. “I said, ‘You know what? I need to leave contests alone because it’s just not going to work,’” she remembers. “After you tend to keep losing awhile, it tends to keep bothering you.”

For most people, the idea of karaoke as a stress creator may seem strange. After all, the nearly 40-year-old pastime is commonly seen as a stress reliever, a drinking-time distraction, an excuse for bar patrons to embarrass themselves and bond over a shared, schmaltzy sing-along. Japan gave birth to the idea as a way for overworked businessmen to forget work. But while karaoke largely remains a wildly popular barroom escape—Karaoke Scene maintains a database of more than 650 venues in Southern California—the fact remains that it entails performance. And for most people, performance doesn’t come easily.

That’s even true for the diehards, the regulars such as Johnson who read Karaoke Scene, compete in KaraokeFest and go to a few karaoke nights each week. Johnson distinctly remembers the terror she felt at the prospect of performing in church as a child. “If I was leading a song with the choir, when they start playing, before I even get to sing, I’m already shaking half to death, I’m already crying, and then I turn the microphone off so nobody hears me,” she says. “And then once they think I’m supposed to be singing, they’re scrambling to try to find out why they can’t hear me on the microphone.”

At Nadine’s, nerves also show up at a table closer to the stage than Johnson’s. Bobby Santos—nom de chant “Bobby Vegas”—frets more energetically. Wearing plastic-framed glasses, a driving cap, a cross pendant and a short-sleeved button-up shirt, the 43-year-old looks the part of a rockabilly hipster as he chats in quick bursts, waiting for his turn to sing. He explains that he spent the past weekend competing in a slew of venues only to be repeatedly locked out of the top six qualifying spots. “Right now, I’m a little nervous,” he says, flashing a wide but gritted smile. “There’ve been a lot of good singers.”

Santos’ name is called. He spits out a wad of gum and sticks it on a coaster before bounding onto the stage. “Who likes the Beatles?” he asks into the microphone as the opening licks to “Come Together” float from the sound rig. “Good—because this is Aerosmith’s version.”

His take on the song is a strutting, arena-rattling thing. He swoops his face close to the camera broadcasting the show online and mugs for it. “God, he’s so shy,” says Kelly Lynne Harris, a singer at his table. Juanita Mankuleiyo, another singer with them, chuckles.

Santos finishes and bounces down to his seat.

“Nicely done,” Mankuleiyo says.

Santos looks relieved. “Beer me,” he says and takes a swig from his drink.

Johnson’s up soon after. She has shed her windbreaker, revealing a top with sequined, sparkly sides. It appears her jitters are gone. She begins to slightly sashay for “Blues In the Night.” “My momma done told me . . . A man is a two-face . . .” Her voice is clear and husky. There’s a sly smile on her face between lines. The performance looks effortless.

Fran Emmons sits close to the stage, watching, and occasionally glancing down at a sheet of paper. In the dim bar, she has clipped a book light to a Budweiser pint glass that’s holding ice water with lemon. The light helps her check the lineup to make sure the singers are performing in the order that she selected prior to the show by randomly drawing sheets of paper. Emmons, a representative for Karaoke Scene (she does the magazine’s pictures page) is there to monitor the contest. Lonnie B. is the public face of the show, but Emmons is watching him—and, of course, the contestants.

“It’s not like they’re close, personal friends, but you get to know them,” she says of the contestants. “If you stick around and get to know the people, they all have a story.”

Perhaps it’s a testament to the diehards’ commitment to the art of karaoke that KaraokeFest can work as it does: It is judged entirely by the people who compete in it. At the end of each night, singers turns in their ballots listing their top six picks for that night’s winners. They can’t vote for themselves; in theory, if the group is large enough, biased voting for friends will be canceled out. And so after the 16th singer at Nadine’s finishes, the contestants—Johnson, Santos, Lynne Harris and Mankuleiyo included—turn in their voting forms, and Emmons tallies them up. She writes the winners on a piece of paper (there are usually six, unless there’s a tie, in which case, as on this night, there are seven) and hands them to Lonnie while the singers chat somewhat nervously.

“I cannot take another loss,” Santos says, squirming. The first four names are called, and he’s not among them. “I’m screwed,” he says. The fifth—not him. Then comes No. 6: “Bobby Santos!” With a yip, Santos jumps up and bounds into the lineup for a picture.

Johnson is called next. She’s beaming.

*   *   *

A few weeks later, in the wood-paneled and brass-adorned Pilsner Room of McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant in Irvine, Santos explains the central dilemma of events like KaraokeFest. “Competition is totally different from karaoke,” he says. “Because karaoke’s supposed to be fun. Contests, sometimes, are not fun.”

It’s a Wednesday night, and Santos, along with a pierced-lip assistant who goes by the name Mike Nova, is running one of the six karaoke shows that his Bobby Vegas Entertainment hosts each week. That’s not to say Santos himself hosts six shows; in fact, he has an associate at one in Long Beach that runs at the same time as the McCormick & Schmick’s show.

Early in the night, Santos apologizes that things aren’t more swinging. Only three people have signed up to sing, including a married elderly couple who have been coming to Santos’ shows at McCormick’s since he started a few years ago. “We’ve got three books; we’ve got three singers. Do the math,” he booms genially into the microphone. “There’s plenty of room for you to sing if you’re so inclined . . . and it doesn’t matter if you suck. Bobby Vegas will do his magic and make you sound better.”

Nights like these are what most people think of when they think of karaoke: a host—referred to in diehard jargon as a “Karaoke Jockey” or KJ—encouraging bar patrons to drop their inhibitions and sing the tune that has been stuck in their head all day. But Santos is playing with fire, in a way, by even acknowledging that a karaoke singer might suck. It’s not that all karaoke singers think they’re good; it’s that on a Wednesday night, at a non-competitive show, judgment isn’t even part of the equation. Even the girl who whimpers her way through the acoustic, extended version of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” gets an approving remark from Santos: “That was outstanding!”

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?

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.’

“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.

“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.

“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

skornhaber@ocweekly.com

This article appeared in print as "Karaoke Kingdom: Fear and longing in the world of competitive karaoke."

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