What is American karaoke like?
If you remember as I do, you’re in a dingy dive bar several blocks from a college campus. The smell of smoke and cheap beer nonconsensually assaults your nostrils. The clock strikes eleven and the bar owner jumps on the microphone.
“All right folks! It’s karaoke night! Write your name and song and let’s get this thing started!”
You turn back to your group of friends as the music resumes.
“Let me see the book! I wanna sing a song!”
Your stomach turns as your friends take turns rifling through the grimy plastic-lined pages of the overused song book.
“Ian, what song are you going to sing?”
I was going to sing a song? Since when? I don’t sing. But everyone else chose a song. What are you going to do? Are you really going to be the only one not to sing?
“Uh…let me see the book.”
You page through the cloudy, germ-riddled sheets as you fruitlessly fail to find your first three song choices. Finally, you settle on an easy song. You scribble your name fifth from the top.
“5 songs,” you think. “That’s plenty of time to use the bathroom and down two more drinks.”
“All right, folks! Let’s get started,” the MC announces. “First up, we have Rebecca! Put your hands together for Rebecca!”
A small cluster of people cheers as the rest look around indifferently. Soon the professionally-recorded not-too-loud music gives way to an excessive wall of amateur noise. You wish you could resume conversation with your friend, but the speakers insist instead that you listen to a total stranger pretend to sing.
“Oh well,” you think. “I might as well drink.”
1 bathroom trip, 2 cocktails, 10 dollars, and 20 minutes later, judgment day arrives.
“And now let’s give it up for Ian!”
You stumble a bit as those two drinks begin to take root. Your small cluster of friends cheers, but everyone else just nurses their drinks and takes advantage of the brief respite of quiet.
The instrumentals start. You tap your foot or sway to the beat. The countdown begins.
3. 2. 1.
And you’re off. You hit the cue perfectly and start the first verse strong. This momentum carries your through the hook and even into the second verse.
But then you hit a hiccup. You mistime the beat and forget the lyrics. You compose yourself, locked into singing for the next 90 seconds.
You stumble a few more times, but more or less hold your own. The song ends, a few people clap, and you exhale. Your face feels hot (whether it’s from frayed nerves or the collective bar body heat you don’t know). You rejoin your friends to several high-fives and a gnawing desire to return to the bar for a fresh drink.
I never cared for American-style karaoke. It feels so public. Most of us are not professional grade singers, which is fine. I don’t think anyone expects a knockout performance. But on the other hand, I often feel guilty assaulting the ears of strangers with my scratchy impression of “singing.”
So when I first heard that karaoke is a popular pastime in Korea, I felt a bit nervous. Without sufficient alcohol and peer pressure, it was never an activity I enjoyed.
I was fortunately very mistaken.
Korean karaoke removes everything I hate about American karaoke night and leaves only feelings of joy, camaraderie, and cathartic release.
Most karaoke nights occur not in bars, but among friends. People either pay hourly for a lounge-sized “singing room” or pay by the song in a “coin singing room” no larger than two phone booths.
Essentially, every friend group can have its own private “karaoke night.” You choose songs among friends, sing among friends, drink among friends, and share many laughs.
Unlike a bar, where the majority of the audience is a stranger, singing rooms are a more intimate affair. While many of us would feel uncomfortable singing in public, singing amongst friends is far less intimidating. Heck, sometimes I even go to the coin-op rooms alone. There is something incredibly relieving about belting out your stress into a microphone. I may walk into the arcade with a heavy weight on my shoulders, but I often leave with a light, tingly feeling. I feel primed to lift up and fly away, my dancing feet propelling me skyward.
In addition to stress relief, I find that the singing rooms complement my growing interest in popular Korean music. There is something very enjoyable about practicing songs in a foreign language by reading a foreign script. I have no doubt that my reading ability has improved thanks to the rapid eye-tracking required to maintain pace with the lyrics. Sure, I mumble and mispronounce 40% of my words. But the more I practice, the more confident I become in speaking the correct words.
Before moving to Korea, worried about having to sing karaoke. However, now I worry that the absence of singing rooms in America will mark a reverse culture shock.
Sometimes we can unearth new favorite pastimes if we are willing to tweak its parameters. I often get frustrated and tired while playing golf. But mini golf is always a blast. Likewise, singing karaoke in front of strangers in a crowded bar is not my idea of a good time. But singing karaoke in the company of good friends (or even with only myself) has proven thoroughly enjoyable.