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Say what? Karaoke night damages ears but builds courage

I came late to the movement. It began 20 years ago in Kobe City, Japan and hit it big in the U.S. in the early '90s. But it wasn't until last Friday night that I stood at a microphone in front of a crowd and experienced the magic that is karaoke.

As far as candidates for voluntary humiliation go, I am a highly unlikely one. I embarrass easily and don't handle crowds well. When faced with the prospect of presenting in front of a group, I have been known to vomit.

Still, the idea of getting up in front of a crowd of strangers and momentarily living out my dreams of diva-dom has interested me since 1991, when I first became aware of the craze that was sweeping the nation. For a number of years karaoke bars were huge, but by the time I was old enough to patronize such establishments the trend seemed to be over. Karaoke was dead, or so I thought.

About two months ago someone mentioned to me in passing that BW3's on Barracks Road sometimes has a karaoke night. Excited by the idea that karaoke was alive and well in Charlottesville, I did a little investigating. I called BW3's and was informed that the local haunt did in fact have karaoke night every Friday beginning at 9:30.

Before I could partake in karaoke night, I needed to put together a group to accompany me. Moral support is definitely a necessity for a karaoke novice, especially one who's a little bit, shall we say, tone deaf. My first recruit was my roommate, Jen, who's been singing off-key versions of everything from Neil Diamond's "Desiree" to N'Sync's "It Makes Me Ill" with me for years.

"I'll go with you," Jen told me when I asked if she'd come to karaoke night, "but you'll never get up there."

"Why do you think that?" I asked, hurt that she doubted my resolve.

"Kate, I've heard you sing," was her only reply.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I began to enlist people to come and sing karaoke with me. Figuring I needed the most supportive and non-threatening audience possible, I began by asking friends. Most thought it sounded like fun and said they would be glad to come along. Of course, they added, there was no way they would actually get up and sing. Since it's no fair to just watch others abase themselves and not join in, I thanked these friends for their support but cordially dis-invited them. Eventually, Jen and I put together a group of 10 people willing to belt out a tune before an audience and we headed over to BW3's.

There was not a familiar face in the crowd that flocked to karaoke night. There wasn't even any one in my age range that I didn't arrive with. But as soon as I walked through the doors of BW3's, I felt a sense of camaraderie with the other patrons. My friends and I got a table and listened to a fabulous rendition of "Brickhouse," that made us doubt whether or not we should risk humiliating ourselves by getting on the microphone. Fortunately, a nearly unrecognizable version of John Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane" restored our faith in ourselves, and I approached the "DJ" to sign up to sing.

"You picked what?" My group seemed incredulous of my musical selection. As I led the way from our table to the stage I could hear them muttering amongst themselves. "Why did she pick that song?" "I don't even know that song." "I guess I'll just stand in the back, and try my best to follow along."

We took our places on the stage, Jen and I positioned directly in front of the microphone and everyone else bunched up in a group behind us. I glanced out at the crowd and suddenly realized that about 100 people were about to hear me sing. Fear overtook me and I fought the urge to run as far away as possible.

Since it had been me who roped everyone into the endeavor in the first place and I'd never live it down if I bolted, I took a deep breath and waited for the music to begin. Seconds later, I heard the opening notes of "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown," the song I had chosen for my karaoke debut. Jen cleared her throat and gave me a little nudge with her elbow. Softly we began to sing.

Then the strangest thing happened, the audience started clapping. People began to sing along. Amazed by the public support of our musical expression, we gained enthusiasm and our singing got louder. By the time we hit the second chorus we had an extra four people on stage accompanying us and several dancers. We were a hit, and it was thrilling.

It is impossible to go to karaoke night and not have a good time. Where else can you cast off all your inhibitions and morph for a few precious minutes into a rock star? At karaoke night no one cares if you're good or bad, everyone's just there to have a good time. It's no wonder Japanese business men have been frequenting karaoke bars after work for years. Karaoke is about community. It's also highly addictive.

By the end of the evening, not only had I done a rendition of a Jim Croce classic, but I'd banded together with friends and strangers alike and interpreted "Sweet Caroline," "We Just Disagree" and a host of other songs.

I have plans to go back. The world is waiting for my interpretation of Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean," and I have to say, I can hardly wait to give it to them.


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