The Wild Magic of Karaoke

Some people don’t like karaoke. Some people even consider karaoke some kind of abomination, in which amateur singers inflict their dreadful tunesmithing on their fellow humans. I do not understand those people. To me, karaoke is a vital cultural tradition, that takes the best aspects of pop music and our pomo “remixing” and participatory culture and makes them even more amazing.

I have been a karaoke fiend for as long as I can remember, and I even once managed to be featured on Japanese television, doing a particularly energetic performance at a Tokyo karaoke bar. I used to be the designated karaoke-bar reviewer for a local San Francisco newspaper, and I adore any chance to bust out with a crazy over-the-top performance.

To me, karaoke is really about being as dramatic and silly as you can possibly be. I don’t entirely agree with the people who say that singing ability is irrelevant to do karaoke, but I do think that a willingness to be ridiculous in front of your friends (and possibly strangers) is essential. The best karaoke performances I’ve witnessed have been ones in which some kind of threshold of silliness was reached and surpassed, and the performer ended up doing something kind of memorably bonkers.

My favorite karaoke performers are theatrical, weird, possibly queer, and definitely subversive. I used to go to a karaoke bar on the edge of the Castro district in San Francisco (one of our main gay neighborhoods) every week, in part because of all of the wonderfully gender-warping and camptastic performances I saw there. Nowadays, my favorite karaoke night is at The Stud, a venerable gay bar where a drag nun named Sister Flora Goodthyme is the karaoke hostess on Thursday nights.

To me, karaoke is really at its absolute best when there’s a drag nun with a saucy pun name encouraging you to sing your heart out.

And yes, if you can’t sing at all, that just means more wild spoken-word stylings. Take a page from the master of songcraft, William Shatner, whose singing ability remains somewhat theoretical but who has recorded the definitive renditions of countless songs at this point.

The point is, karaoke is magic. It’s taking songs that we all know, and turning them into something ephemeral and wonderful and frequently a bit bizarre. Karaoke is a chance for everybody to expose his or her own inner avant-garde pop diva, and let the musical insanity burst out for everyone to see.

When I was teaching Clarion West back in 2014, I had some amazing times with my students, and I like to think we bonded a lot in general—but I really didn’t get to know them, and discover the full range of their personalities, until we went to this weird nautical-themed karaoke bar where half the decorations were mermaids and the other half were signs explaining that the bartender didn’t need to put up with your s—-t. Some of science fiction’s most promising new writers busted out with renditions of Lady Gaga, Madonna, and The Cars that stay with me to this day.

But my favorite karaoke memory might actually be the contest I helped judge at Convergence, a convention in Minneapolis—the winner was this incredible performer who did “Take On Me” by A-ha, and during the instrumental break, he actually “played” the keyboard solo with his feet, by dancing. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.

If your coworkers don’t want to go do karaoke with you, that means that they hate you and are secretly doing karaoke behind your back. Guaranteed.

Which brings me to the great karaoke controversy: do you sing in a bar or in a “karaoke box,” which is a tiny enclosed room with a few couches and a single small screen? I vastly prefer the former, because I think it’s actually easier to get intensely silly in front of a larger audience of drunk strangers. And I like getting to hear total strangers do their own mind-blowing (and occasionally eardrum-blowing) renditions of songs I would never have expected. But some people prefer the karaoke box experience, because then you’re just singing to friends (and maybe acquaintances). You don’t have to wait as long to sing, and you don’t have to deal with weird people that you don’t know. But like I said, I vastly prefer the “bar” setup. A DRAG NUN from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence can cheer you on as you sing your heart out. What part of that sentence doesn’t make you want to go out in public?

Also, karaoke is the subject of one of the weirdest movies of all time—Duets, starring Huey Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow as a father-daughter karaoke hustler duo. Also featuring Paul Giamatti as an uptight businessman who gets hooked on beta blockers and utters the immortal line, “Bam bam bam! John Wayne I am!” And so, so much more.

So is there any karaoke in my upcoming novel about a witch and a mad scientist, All the Birds in the Sky? Alas, no. There actually was rather a lot of karaoke in the book, at one point, but a brutal revision process left the book karaoke-free.

Early on, there was a whole chapter from the point of view of Kevin, a young webcomics artist who dates Patricia, the witch. Kevin meets Patricia at a party with some really terrible DJs, but then he runs into her again at a karaoke night at a dive bar, and finds himself falling for her because of the sadness, and yet giddiness, with which she sings some ’90s pop songs. But that scene never even got transcribed from my longhand draft.

And then there was also a scene, which was in the book until almost the last round of revisions, where Patricia and her fellow witches do karaoke at a “box” in Japantown. And yes, they use magic to cheat at karaoke, like you do. When I get around to posting deleted scenes from the book on my Tumblr, it’ll probably turn up there.

But meanwhile, I do have one urban fantasy story in which karaoke is a major plot device, and basically the means by which the plot is resolved. It’s called “Fairy Werewolf vs. Vampire Zombie,” and it’s sort of my tribute to The Vampire Diaries. You can read it online at Flurb, or in the new anthology Love Hurts. It ends with a lethal karaoke contest and a vitally important lesson about the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

So to sum up—karaoke. It’s awesome. It will help you summon strange spirits. Karaoke is the alchemy of pop culture. Rock the mic, and it’ll make you a better explorer of the uncanny.

This article was originally published in December 2015 as part of our ongoing Related Subjects series.

All the Birds in the Sky Charlie Jane AndersBefore writing fiction full-time, Charlie Jane Anders was for many years an editor of the extraordinarily popular science fiction and fantasy site io9.com. Her debut novel, the mainstream Choir Boy, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edmund White Award. Her Tor.com story “Six Months, Three Days” won the 2013 Hugo Award and was optioned for television. Her debut SFF novel All the Birds in the Sky, recently won the 2016 Nebula Award in the Novel category and earned praise from, among others, Michael Chabon, Lev Grossman, and Karen Joy Fowler. She has also had fiction published by McSweeney’s, Lightspeed, and ZYZZYVA. Her journalism has appeared in Salon, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.

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