America is not a nation of performers. The average American, given the choice, would rather go to an important job interview naked than stand up in front of a large group of strangers to sing. So it's very odd that an entertainment like karaoke has become and remained so popular in the United States. Maybe this interesting form of social embarrassment ties in with our Hollywood-induced fantasies: of being in the right place at the right time; of being "discovered" by some record-company mogul; of signing the contract outside in the limousine; of easy fame and easier money.
Karaoke is an abbreviated compound word we get from the Japanese, meaning "empty orchestra." (There is a pun inherent in the word, which can also mean "empty bucket." I assume that the humor doesn't translate very well.) Pronounced "kah-rah-O-kay" (and by the ignorant as "Carrie Okie"), karaoke has been a mainstay of Japanese culture since its near-mythical introduction more than 20 years ago in a small snack bar in Kobe.
Apparently, a local guitarist made a little money by playing pop tunes for the patrons, while they sang the lyrics. When the guitarist was sick or otherwise unable to perform, the owner of the snack bar would play accompaniment tapes for his customers. From such humble beginnings, karaoke spread like wildfire across Japan, and soon made the leap across the water to mainland Asia, Europe and the United States.
Karaoke in America is not a snack bar thing, it's a real bar thing. Beer, wine and mixed drinks seem to be a necessity for the customary use and misuse of an innocent karaoke system. Upon entering the establishment, one finds pencils, song catalogues and little song-request slips on the tables. Fill out a form, noting the song's title and code number, and hand the slip to the DJ who is running the festivities. Then, sit back to wait for your turn at the microphone. (At this point, most people take the opportunity to bolster their courage with a few drinks.) If it's your turn, get up, take the spotlight, and sing your heart out. For those patrons who might want to sing along with you, the lyrics to the song are shown on several TV screens around the premises. After consuming suitable quantities of alcohol, heck, just about any ol' yokel will stand up and wail out his very own personal rendition of "Margaritaville," "Me and Bobby McGee," "My Heart Will Go On" or "Copacabana." There really should be legislation passed to have warning labels placed on karaoke microphones: "WARNING: If you have had more than three (3) alcoholic beverages, do not attempt to perform any song by Gloria Gaynor, the Eagles, Whitney Houston or any rap star. Country & Western is performed at your own risk."
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One of the greatest things about karaoke is the "we're all in the same boat" mentality of the participants. You're not going to get booed off the floor if you're terrible; in fact, you might just bring down the house. No one laughs at a truly wretched performance; we all know that it took a great deal of courage to walk up in front of a room full of strangers -- and we might be the next one up. Another comfort to the karaoke addict is the great availability of the entertainment. Every night of the week, in every part of the Valley of the Sun, as many as 75 establishments offer a good old-fashioned Japanese sing-along.
One, Payton's Sports Grill (3626 East Indian School; 602-957-2462), was the place to be for karaoke on a recent Saturday night. Memorable moments included a fiery young blonde belting out "I'm the Only One," by Melissa Etheridge; an older gent offering a stirring rendition of Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears"; and your humble author's assault on "Sultans of Swing" by Dire Straits.
The regulars at Payton's take their karaoke seriously. A young man named Thomas is sufficiently seductive to have been nicknamed "Sexy-voice" by some of the female regulars, while one of the waitresses, an acting student named Cami, loves to belt out show tunes. Some of the faithful practice ahead by singing along with their car radios, and keeping a list in their cars so they can remember which songs they can sing well.
For an excellent Web site about all things karaoke in the Greater Phoenix Metro Area, take a good look at http://www.azkaraoke.com/new.html. This site has information on events around the Valley, by night and by region, as well as links to karaoke products, a brief history of the pastime, a karaoke forum and updates about ongoing karaoke contests in Arizona, at least one of which has a cash prize for the winner.