Karaoke: The Traveller’s Icebreaker

Originally published in the Montreal Gazette on October 19, 2013. 

It’s a balmy June day in Spain’s beachy Costa Blanca region. All anyone cares about are the 2010 World Cup matches playing on the big screen at Stallion’s pub, a popular watering hole in a mostly British suburb of Torrevieja called Dream Hills. Today is significant since England is up against the U.S. Being Canadian and married to a Brit, I deem it best not to root for my neighbours to the south.

Thankfully for everyone involved, the game ends in a tie. England didn’t perform particularly well, but at least they’re through to the next round. That’s enough for the British majority of patrons at Stallion’s to turn the party up to 11. The TV is muted and, at the egging on of the pub owners, my husband takes to the teeny stage to host a Karaoke celebration. He puts me up first, and as he does, our Swedish friends Tom and Monica walk in. Upon seeing them, I request a song change. Before it starts, I point to them and say, “This is for you!”

It’s the first time I’ve chosen “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” by ABBA. Its cool riff and steady disco bops are right for the occasion: everyone’s in the mood to move. After my performance, Tom gives me a big hug and says, “I loved that, it was wonderful!” I chose the ditty as a shout-out to his homeland, but the real compliment to Sweden is that everyone knows ABBA.

That’s the thing about Karaoke. In so many places throughout the world, the songbook will reliably be filled with international, barrier-breaking hits. We may not speak the same language, but we all know “Hey Jude.”

Naturally there’ll be tunes in the language of the country of origin – Karaoke books in Montreal always have a French section – but most of the tome features songs of the moment (Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber) and of the greats (Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna).

When my husband and I travel to a new city, we invariably find a Karaoke joint on the first night. It’s how a couple of strangers like us meet new people.

My husband’s signature song is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Because the number is usually performed by a group of drunken friends, most Karaoke hosts are pleasantly surprised when they realize my husband can actually sing. His rendition has even earned us a round of drinks in Victoria, BC, at Sopranos Bar & Grill on Caledonia Ave., a boxy, inconspicuous locale in a warehouse district. “Most people ruin that song,” the host told us, handing us some shots on the house. “Thanks for doing the opposite.”

“Bohemian” is a song that people can easily recognize, generally appreciate, and feel compelled to sing along to. It combines these qualities more seamlessly than most songs, so it’s a great conversation-starter. Usually, the conversations starts with, “hey man, that was great!” And from there, we have a friend for the night.

I have a different approach. I like to get people dancing, I have a few ‘80s anthems in my roster. I’m partial to Nena’s “99 Luftballons” (in English), Martha and the Muffins’ “Echo beach,” and because I’m also French Canadian, Marc Drouin et les Échalotes’ “Pied de poule.” If I can, I also like to acknowledge the place I’m in, so when I’m in Cancun, Mexico, expect me to take on “La Bamba.”

I’m not an especially good singer, but after 16 years of classical piano training, I can at least sing on key. A typical reaction to my song choice is, “I haven’t heard that in so long!” More common still is me getting off the stage and on the dance floor.

We’re not in pursuit of praise. My husband and I enjoy listening to everyone else, and we’re just as likely to chat them up.

At Planet Rose, a cramped Karaoke bar in New York’s East Village, we meet Rob, who kills it with U2’s “With or without you.” (Honestly, we’re impressed by anyone who can actually pull off Bono.) It turns out Rob’s a regular, so he introduces us to some of the people he knows. One of them is Andy, who manages to convince me to duet with him to Pat Benetar’s “We belong.”

We never wonder if it’s okay to approach Rob, and Andy took all of 5 minutes to ask me to be his harmony. The constant in Karaoke is that if you can go up there and sing – even if you’re a terrible singer – you’re probably not shy. The courageous act of getting on the stage at all implicitly says “Hello” to the whole audience, which, when you think about it, is how all exchanges begin.

Feeling insecure? Pick a song with plenty of sing-along-ability. I’m reminded of that Ally McBeal episode when tone-deaf Georgia takes the stage at the gang’s favourite piano bar and butchers Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” Vonda Shepard steps in, encouraging the audience to sing along to cover up Georgia’s dreadful voice. With Karaoke, it’s a given that not everyone’s a singer. But because all the songs in the book are well-known, and because the words are on the screen, anyone can sing along. In fact, knowing they’ve chosen a popular song might even give the apprehensive singer an ego-boost.

For a rush on a grander scale, head to the Rising Star club at Universal’s CityWalk in Orlando, Florida. Here, Karaoke is taken to the next level of completion. At only a few pages, the songbook is smaller than what we’re used to, but there’s a reason. Once you’re called up, a full band and back-up singers help you deliver the song like a star. And because this is America, the stage crew has memorized each of those tunes in the songbook and performs them to pitch. In fact, should you falter or sing off-key, the back-up singers’ mics get jacked up to make it sound like it’s still all you. There’s less singing along in a polished place like this, but for a little over three minutes, it’s all about you.

Over in Nashville, we find Lonnie’s Western Room, a Karaoke bar in Printer’s Alley, only a couple of blocks from the city’s honky-tonk central. Lonnie’s is everything I hoped a Nashville pub would be: tiny, cluttered, and teeming with people who aren’t necessarily vying for country superstardom. In fact, I hear more metal than bluegrass.

There’s just one problem: they won’t play “Bohemian Rhapsody.” When my husband asks why not, the bartender tells him the owner has a list of “do not play” songs, and that’s one of them. It turns out the list has been laminated. Among others are some Eminem tracks, Coolio’s “Gangster’s paradise” and – this one’s a head-scratcher – Billy Joel’s “Piano man.”

I can’t restrain him; my husband wants to leave. As we walk away, I remind him that there are other songs he could sing. “I know,” he says. “But I can’t support someone who would actually ban songs just because they annoy him.”

He has a point. My personal distaste for Britney Spears is automatically suspended the moment I enter the realm of Karaoke. Besides, if there’s anything that can bring a diverse, if mismatched group of people together, surely it’s a song they’ve all heard.

When my husband and I got married three years ago, our guest list read like a United Nations function. People hailed from both of Canada’s coasts, the U.S., England, France, Spain, Australia and Iraq. Many of them had never met before.

To break the ice, we worked Karaoke into the reception. “Weddingoke,” it was called. We hired a DJ in case we ran out of song requests, but in the end, Weddingoke rendered him redundant.

My husband started things off with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was the first time my parents heard him sing. “He’s really good,” my father told me. “You did well.” My mother agreed. “I didn’t know he could sing like that,” she said.

Some parents want their daughters to marry a doctor. Mine, who met in 1975 after joining the same band, were quite happy that I’d found a man who could transition through the song’s many changes like it was nothing at all.

It’s a talent my husband took with him when he backpacked through Australia and Thailand in the early 2000s. And since we started travelling together in the last few years, his “Bohemian” and my “99 Luftballons” have made us friends wherever we go.

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