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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Friday (5/11/12) 6:45pm - ... wherein Peter goes on a bit about not digging karaoke.

Improvisors are really, really into karaoke.  And because I like my fellow imps, I often tag along to karaoke outings.  But I rarely stay that long, because honestly, maybe four times out of five, I have a pretty awful time at karaoke.

That's perplexing, because I love singing.  Hell, if I *can't* sing -- say, if a cold wrecks my singing voice -- I start going batty after a day or two.  These days, I marvel that I held onto my sanity in the days before I could play songs on guitar.

People often wonder why I don't take to karaoke -- and I often wonder myself -- so I figured I'd list out the reasons, as best as I can figure them.

Crowds & Volume
For me, being in a loud crowded room is exhausting.  The nearest thing I can think to compare it to is if you were stuck in a room where somebody was constantly scraping a chalkboard with their fingernails.  You could deal with it, sure, but after a minute or so, just being there -- not even *doing* anything -- would take all the energy you had.  Very quickly, all you're doing -- and a good chunk of all you're thinking about -- is just enduring the environment.

This is basically the definition of introversion, and different introverts feel this to different extents.  Consider this:  no personality test I've ever taken has been able to accurately measure how introverted I am, because I always score off-the-chart.  So most of the time, I make my surroundings as empty and as quiet as possible.

This has got to be the biggest thing that makes me hate karaoke, as karaoke is pretty much the loudest and crowdedest thing I'll willingly submit myself to.  If you have a private room at a karaoke venue, friends are usually sardined in there, and you usually have a roomful of people shouting along to an already-loud accompaniment.  So I'm constantly dealing with a low-level circuit in my brain screaming "DO! NOT! WANT!!!" at the whole situation.

Honestly, this must be at least 50% of my dislike of karaoke, right there.  You could skip the rest of this post and not miss much.

Odds are, I hate all of your favorite songs.  It's nothing personal, and it's not a sign of good taste on my part (my taste in music is neither refined nor interesting).

But consider:  I can only think of one stretch of time in my whole life where I listened to the radio regularly:  between 1990 and 1991 I listened to Casey Kasem's top forty every week.  And... that's it.  In high school, I had four tapes (Treehouse, Murmur, Sam Cooke Live at the Apollo, The Wall) that I played into the ground.  At college, I quickly started accumulating CDs.  After college, I got into mp3s as soon as commercial players were available.  I didn't drive until my mid-20s, and both of the cars I've owned since then have had mp3 players.  Outside of '90/'91, I never listened to the radio of my own volition.

So really, top 40 has had no personal significance for me.  I found my little niche of alternative rock, and then drifted back into 60s pop and R&B, and some 90s power pop, and that's pretty much where my tastes have stayed.  Apart from when U2 and REM broke big, it was all just background noise, like so many advertising jingles.  And on top of that, I've basically fallen victim to that old-guy syndrome where I've just stopped trying to ferret out new music -- so anything after maybe '97, I may not even be aware of.

I mean, just to pluck a random example:  I have never listened to Bon Jovi willingly.  Never ever.  It was a band my friends and I made fun of the first time around.  I have nothing against Bon Jovi, nor against people liking Bon Jovi, but I barely know how "Dead or Alive" goes, because I've always kind of tuned it out.

So basically, karaoke (and Song Spot, come to think of it) always reminds me that, musically, I have *nothing* in common with my friends.  And that's always a bit sad.

On top of that, you have to consider the qualities most often associated with "karaoke music".  In addition to being wildly popular (but not *too* popular), it's usually sort of celebratory and bombastic.  It's whatever the opposite of Nick Drake is, and very little of the music I willingly listen to clusters around that pole.  Maybe Queen? a few Stevie Wonder songs? some of the more anthemic Bruce Springsteen tracks?  But even with Springsteen, my favorite record of his is -- and, barring a stunning late-career renaissance, always will be -- Nebraska.  The music that most speaks to me is always the stuff that's melancholy, or quirky, or wickedly ironic.  None of that is "Total Eclipse of the Heart" territory.

The quick summary of this section is "I need to figure out how key adjustments work on karaoke machines."  I mean, seriously, is it a half-step per button-click? a full step? do you have to wait 'til the song gets going to move it around? does the machine give you any legible feedback about what key you've landed in?

I'm a bass-baritone, which is a fancy way of saying, "I have a crappy, limited vocal range that doesn't quite fit into either the 'bass' or 'baritone' categories."  I like singing pop music (or perhaps "the commercially-unsuccessful version of pop music"), but that music is for tenors.  So any time I learn a song, step one is figuring out how far to transpose it out of its native key.  Usually I end up moving it about half an octave, or "about as far as possible".  Then I can happily belt out the song at the top of my tessitura, and I'm good to go.

So basically, I can't sing it in the key it's recorded in without spending half the song in falsetto, and I can't drop it an octave without sounding low, croaky, and non-pop-like.  (And honestly, I probably couldn't drop it a tritone on a karaoke machine without making all the accompaniment sound weird.)

Which gets me to another point:  I don't like singing something badly.  Sure, I can soldier through singing a song in an unfriendly key, and I can "sell it" like I actually believe in it, but... that's *really* torture.  If it sounds like crap, I hate it, and I don't really have a choice about that emotion.  Again, nails on a chalkboard provide a useful example -- there's just a visceral response to the badness.

And yes, this does mean that when I hear *other* people get off-key or off-rhythm, on the inside I'm wincing.  I know, I know, karaoke is all about the confidence that you bring to the song, not the skill with which you sing it -- but for me, that added 'rock-star confidence' just means someone is dragging their nails across a chalkboard *like they really mean it*.

"Oh.  So the thing I hate hearing is now louder and more emphatic.  Great."

I recognize that this is neither a virtue nor a sign that I am a good person.  I also see how ironic this is, since *I* tend to drift off-key (descending scales are a particular bugaboo) and off-rhythm.

Attention, Performance, Etc.
But I think that, on a deeper level, I don't really like attention.  At this point, people with little experience with theater will say, "That's impossible -- he's an actor!", and people with lots of experience in theater will nod agreeably, because they know the type.  There are lots of introverted actors who will happily tear it up onstage, and then leave the stage, and then quietly keep to themselves.  So I think that karaoke is small-scale enough that it starts pushing things into "oh god, I have to interact with a whole group of people, ugh" territory.[1]  I never minded belting out "Jesus is Just Alright" during the Freaks and Geeks show, for example.  But that was in front of, and separated from, a distinct audience.

On a related note, I don't think singing for people does much more for me than singing for myself (or for a recording) does.  I mean, it's nice enough to please an audience, and I guess it could impress women once in a while, but as for the act of singing itself... it's like the audience is, at best, a distraction.  Their attention just doesn't do anything for me, and I'd be just as content (if not more so) playing a song by myself on my little patio.

Feedback Loops
And beyond a certain point, one's dislike of something can kind of feed on itself.  If you're having a lousy time doing something, your mood will often get lousier if you're surrounded by people who are absolutely ecstatic about it.  If you're reluctant to do something, you'll only get more reluctant if you've got friends insisting that you *have* to do it.  (... or is that just me?  I dig in my heels almost instinctively.)

And karaoke in particular is something people can get... weird about.  You can show up to a drum circle and hang out by the periphery, and that's generally alright.  But if you show up to a karaoke room and just chill out in the 'audience', some people kind of view that as 'cheating', and suddenly there's some kind of contest of wills to get you onstage.

That's no good for anybody.

What to do, what to do.
So, if I want to have at least a tolerable time at a karaoke room, I should probably set a recurring fifteen-minute timer on my phone, so that I remember to leave the crowd/noise regularly and 'recharge'.  (Come to think of it, that's the only way I survive parties; and if I'm at a party without any quiet place to retire to, I usually wind up miserable.)

I also need to sort out how the transposing mechanisms work, at least on the Highball machines, sometime when there isn't a huge queue of people waiting to sing hair metal.  After that, I can page through the song listings, pick songs I like to sing, and do the math on how often I'll have to hit the "flat" button.

But beyond that, I just need to accept that, for a whole spate of reasons, this isn't particularly for me.  And on average, I'll drop in, hang out for as long as I can tolerate, and then be on my way.  Once in a blue moon, I'll have fun.

C'est la vie.

[1] ... which is different from stage fright.  It's not that you're *afraid* to wade through the chest-high pool of sewage, it's more that you don't take much pleasure in it.

Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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[User Picture]
Date:Friday (5/11/12) 6:02pm
I went to Highball karaoke on a Sunday afternoon and they were really lenient with time/cost. I think I remember Robin saying she was there for about fifteen minutes and they didn't charge her anything.
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Date:Friday (5/11/12) 10:36pm
I hear you w/r/t the 'feedback loop' phenomenon. I have also sometimes felt obstinate, to the point where I "can't help it", when presented with a "You *will* [or must or should] like this!" sort of attitude, and that prevents my enjoying something (most typically a YouTube clip or a song...). I also understand the reaction to bad singing (my words, not yours). Not that I'm any expert. I sound best when singing here at home or at work, with people around whom I feel comfortable. A microphone screws that up, as does (as you point out) having to sing in whatever key the recording stipulates. At home, a capella, I can just sing whatever.

Your history of non-radio listening is quite different from my own. I love the radio and the convenience of just tuning in wherever, whenever, and even though I now mostly listen to NPR, I have listened to the radio LOTS over the years, and know lots of pop music.
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[User Picture]
Date:Sunday (5/13/12) 6:39pm
I don't like Karaoke because I already did it. We all went to do it a lot when I was in my 20s and we did about as much as I ever want to do or see in my life. So I will never begrudge people who are just discovering it or for whom it held lasting appeal, I just don't want to go.

It brings out my least patient and generous traits because I don't like how gross and needy for attention some people get. I also don't like people for whom it's some huge risk. You're not going to die if you sing a song, leave me alone.

And I can't take the noise either! Do you already have some hi-fi ear plugs so that it's not loud but still clear? I bet you do, I feel like we've talked about this.
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Date:Sunday (5/13/12) 6:42pm
Yup yup -- here ya go.
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