My brother, Ananth, turned 18 during our recent Christmas-week family holiday. Unlike my 18th birthday—marked by an uneventful school day and the obligatory, furtive purchase of Parliament Lites from a neighborhood gas station (I think the packet’s sitting in my desk drawer as I type this, three years later)—my brother was able to transition into young adulthood in Mexico, where a grown-up teen is free to order his very own tequila. Ananth doesn’t drink, but we thought he’d enjoy exercising his newfound right to sit amidst drinkers. So my father and mother and I got dressed up and took my brother to a bar.
Now, what sort of bar is appropriate for a regular ol’ Indian family of four during their vacation of beach-walking and over-eating and Scrabble playing?
I wish I hadn’t asked.
You could hear Elvis’s “All shook up” all the way from the taqueria across the street, so when we got to the bar at the Rosarito Beach Hotel, I was prepared for what I saw. The room full of Americans, families with adult children and couples and couples on double dates, drinking Coronas and whiskey sours, leaning off the bar as cigarettes dangled precariously from their continually opening mouths. The tables pushed all together with communal ashtrays and so many black leather jackets hanging off the backs of chairs. And nobody was talking, because everyone was joined together making music, tapping their pointy-boots against the floor littered with song requests, their bodies moving toward the stage at the front of the karaoke bar.
In front of the stage: a woman old enough to be my grandmother, sashaying with an invisible partner, rotating her posterior in time with the tunes. And on the stage: a middle-aged man with a sizeable belly and a receding hairline caressing the microphone, belting out “Her lips are like a volcano that’s hot/ I’m proud to say she’s my buttercup” with all the fury and majesty and lust of the King himself.
About a year ago, I wrote an article that started with the premise that everyone wants to be a writer. “Admit it,” I pressed. “You may be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or an MBA from Wharton, but secretly, you want to be a writer.” I stand by the claim, but if I were to revisit the piece I’d have to concede that secretly, everybody also wants to be a singer. Maybe a country-singing Southern belle. Maybe a long-haired rocker. Maybe a South Asian Britney Spears. Even my mother, who would always rather hear NPR in the car than the Top 40, takes pleasure in crooning various old love songs and folk songs and Beatle hits after a healthy glass of red wine. The trick is feeling confident, losing your inhibitions, finding an appreciative audience for the songs you generally perform only for the benefit of showerheads.
That’s where the karaoke bar comes in. It’s a place where anyone can sing (almost) any song before an attentive, inebriated audience that won’t leave or throw tomatoes no matter how many notes you miss, because each person’s waiting her turn to “Hit me with your best shot.” It’s a place where suddenly songs that radio stations wouldn’t be caught dead playing are amazingly, frighteningly reborn: Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive”; Sonny and Cher’s “I got you babe”; “Summer nights” from the musical Grease.
The karaoke bar is a place where you are guaranteed applause; it’s part of the unwritten karaoke code of conduct. No matter how you sing, everyone has to cheer you on because karaoke is for amateurs. That’s the whole point. Of course, every karaoke bar has its regulars, its aficionados, its semi-pros who sound like they’ve either been practicing their entire lives to sing “Girls just wanna have fun” after four margaritas on a snap-together stage or they’re professionals come to intimidate the masses. These people make me so much sadder than the ones who can’t carry a tune to save their lives. If you’re so good, how come you’re performing at the Rosarito Beach Hotel in front of the Srinivasans?
I had my first karaoke experience in Japan, where the revolutionary entertainment and performance practice was born and became popular in the 1970s. Karaoke (pronounced “kah-rah-oh-kay”) literally means “empty orchestra” in Japanese. I went to a number of karaoke bars (more like centers or clubs) where each party had its own room in which to belt out Japanese pop hits and ABBA classics in relative privacy. I was 11 at the time, so I unabashedly sang Madonna’s “La isla bonita,” mispronouncing many of the words I had yet to learn in high-school Spanish. It was fun, I’ll admit. The words were right there in front of me, the accompaniment was perfect, and it was thrilling to perform in front of an audience (my gracious host family). I came home to California and raved about singing karaoke. Then I forgot all about it. That is, until six or seven years later when my father picked up a “karaoke habit” and I was forced to face the music.
Let me tell you about my first experience at an American karaoke bar. Well, near an American karaoke bar. Standing awkwardly with my brother outside San Jose’s Seven Bamboo dive bar, being told by a bouncer that we couldn’t come in without ID, while my parents cajoled and said I was 22 and he was 21 (we were 19 and 16), and we weren’t going to drink, we just wanted to sing some songs. You know you’re hard up for a social life when you’re a college freshman and your father can’t even get you into a karaoke bar where his colleagues are singing “Born to be wild.”
Which is why going to the bar in Mexico was such a big deal. My father, who loves karaoke, is used to hooking his laptop up to the television screen at home and using our primitive microphones and speakers (purchased exclusively for karaoke) to sing his favorite songs by The Doors. The four of us can’t all get into the bars in the States. My father loves karaoke so much that now everyone in my family has his or her particular karaoke songs. (Mine are the similarly, perhaps tellingly, themed “Papa don’t preach” by Madonna and No Doubt’s “Don’t speak.”) We’ve had karaoke parties and parties where karaoke is used as necessary intervention; we have classics-box-sets of karaoke songs and downloaded Hindi karaoke, even Malayalam and Tamil karaoke to be deployed on extra-special occasions.
In the years since my father started amassing his collection of CDs and lyrics, karaoke has risen to prominence in mainstream American popular culture. In 2003, PlayStation came out with Karaoke Revolution (now available in volumes 1-3 and Party Volume 4), a video game in which players sing solo or in duets and are scored on their accuracy of pitch and rhythm. In 2004, the inventor of karaoke, Daisuke Inoue, was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize. The award committee recognized Inoue for developing “an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.”
Karaoke has arrived in the United States, so I guess it only makes sense that the vacationers in Baja California would want to spend their Friday night at the karaoke bar. It’s a fun way to spend an evening doing something unusual, fulfilling that universal dream of singing on stage in front of an audience.
Just no more Elvis, please. At least not with the pelvic thrusts.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a junior and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.