My initial plan was to sing Michael. For reasons that should not be explained. The People love Michael. The People know Michael. The People will holler and scream and rise to their feet at the memory and music of Michael.
As I got ready for the evening ahead at a pirate themed bar in Manhattan’s West Village, I put on Michael and just started feelings things. I felt like dancing. I felt like drinking. And I felt like singing.
I love singing. I sing all day. And if I was going to sing in front of other people, I was going to get it right. Give it everything I had. Leave everything on the stage.
I, of course, am no Michael.
On a random day during a random year in my early life, let’s say 7, my father, the musical anchor of my house, attempted to teach me the classic Christian hymn the Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending. The song is precisely as its title suggests: old school, majestic, angelic. It is very hard to sing. It belongs in cathedrals, not random living rooms with LEGO blocks scattered around. It belongs to those channeling their inner Groban, not Ken Griffey Jr on their SEGA Genesis.
My father, however, insisted on us practicing this song, although I’d never been a singer and never had I suggested I wanted to be on. Over and over we went until, suddenly, my mother, who unknowingly gave me her average to below-average singing voice, decided to fake throw tomatoes at me. She called my sister down as we sang and she proceeded to throw fake tomatoes at me too.
At the time, this was weirdly shocking and kinda mean. Looking back, this was just my mother being entirely my mother: needlessly abrasive. But for me, it was super crazy because I actually did love music and I would have loved to have sang that song like a true Charlotte Church disciple that I’d soon grow into as a confused middle schooler.
The point of my story is if my voice could turn my mother against me, I wasn’t going to revolt this 80s loving crowd singing Michael.
I’ve a friend who’s a painter. Paula. During one of her showcases or whatever you call such things in Williamsburg, I drank her complimentary wine and looked at the oversized canvases that draped the walls of the studio in mild confusion. They were strange paintings. The tamest was on beach goers holding blowfish. Their heads were either midexplosion or post explosion.
In some ways, they were entirely the kind of paintings I’d expect Paula to make. She’s neither a revolutionary artist or a commercial artist. She’s comfortably Paula which always made her one of my favorite people to work with.
I asked her who she expected to look at these paintings and be particularly moved by then. She balked at the question. She told me of a teacher who asked, “Who is your audience?” Paula disagreed that she needed an audience. She painted because she painted because she was a painter. Who did so because it gave her pleasure. That was enough for her.
On this night, I thought of Paula. And I thought of the audience. Hypothetically, this would be the only time I’d do karaoke, because my closest friends reject such things.
There are those who sing crowd pleasers. There are those that sing downers like Anna Nalick. Which, I’m sure is an artist that still moves listeners. But it probably is more appropriately moved over coffee or a book of poetry, not a drunk crowd on a Thursday night.
The best part of karaoke is that your audience is obvious: people that enjoy music and partying and not giving a fuck. Fuck yes. Who cares if your Korean is non-existent. Be non-existently awesome while you mumble through the verses. Cowgirl your way through the chorus. Leave a goddess.
Two people sang Total Eclipse of the Heart. Not one, two. One was a dude. Now, Total Eclipse of the Heart is an entirely fine song. Of all the 80s power ballads, it’s probably the most palatable. Better than Alone. But really, New York? That’s the song you want to create a moment with?
So I sang the Killers’ Mr. Brightside. And this story has a happy ending.
The reasons for singing Mr. Brightside were rather simple. My friend initially voiced his interest in singing that song, and like the true Coldplay fan that I am, we know a good idea worth singing. Plus, the song’s vocal line is fairly monotonous. What Brandon Flowers sacrificed in vocal complexity, he provided manic energy. Which is the only kind of energy.
As this was my first time Karaokeing, I was cut off guard. I could hear the music but the words were flashing on the screen and I was like, Damn. It could have been a disaster. But once I found my place, and got close enough to the tune to suffice, I got into it. And the crowd got into it. And it got very easy.
I know this song really well. I didn’t have to look on the screen and I didn’t have to keep up with the music. I effortlessly moved into every rock move I’ve ever choreographed while directing fake music videos in my head. I remembered my favorite principle: don’t be the best dancer. Be the dancer having the most fun, and applied it to singing. Of course I was off pitch. The no one comes to karaoke to watch Broadway talent. They want to have a good time. So did I!I whipped out the air guitar. I whipped out a few fist pumps. I worked the crowd to the left and saluting the crowd to the right. Near the end, I belted out, “I Neverrrrrrrrr” in chaotic triumph, finishing with both hands in the air and joy in my heart.
The music ended and I found my friends, shaking a few hands along the way. Lo, I left with cheers ascending.
(And then I remembered to get my free rum and coke. Like a baller.)
I will never judge any performer who uses hard drugs. Cocaine. Heroin. If they perfer their cocktails vermouth free and mixed instead with prescription pills, I’ll allow it . Everyone on Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab has my compassion, my understanding and no judgement. Here’s why. If I, after a pitchy, awkward three minute performance of the Killers’ can leave the stage totally amped, ready to run a marathon or end world hunger or give a speech like Ray Lewis at the Super Bowl, I can only imagine the adrenaline that occurs after performing for 20,000 people for two hours. It’s a hard high to leave. And if they need the extra boost, I hope they get it.
I also used to wonder why one-hit wonders stay on the road. The crowds have shrunk and the tour buses have gotten less glamourous. Still they perform. At universities or bars or bat mitzvahs or whatever. Now I don’t wonder. Because performance is entirely satisfying in the moment. In front of 20,000 or fake parrots walking the plank, it feels very good.