It's a Tuesday night at the Bluebird nightclub in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. A diverse crowd, ranging from ages 21 to 65 are lumped around the stage. They talk loudly over the music and pouring over thick binders of song titles. They're all here to partake in the time-honored tradition of karaoke.
"I love to sing, just in general."
"Very few things give me greater pleasure than to sing."
That's Jade and Jeremy, regulars at this particular karaoke location. In between songs, they tell me about hamming it up for their performances last time they were here.
"Was it last week, darling, or was it the week before?" laughed Jade. "When Jeremy here got up on stage and took off his shirt."
"I was singing I'm Too Sexy by Right Said Fred," protested Jeremy. I ask if the crowd reaction was a positive one.
"Apparently!" said Jade. "It was mostly just people we knew, but yeah, big crowd reaction."
What's The Appeal?
Karaoke is one of those rare forms of truly democratic entertainment. You show up at the bar or restaurant, sign up with your name and what song you'd like to sing along to, and shortly thereafter, you're on stage with a microphone. And unlike open mic nights, you don't have to be a musician to participate.
Since its creation in the late 1960s in Japan, karaoke has become a popular pastime in the U.S., and with the advent of videogames like Rock Band, it's more widespread than ever. In Bloomington, there are more venues with karaoke nights than there are coffeeshops!
Jason Evans Groth has hosted karaoke nights at the Bluebird since 2006. He's a vivacious personality, and his own history as a musician makes him especially empathetic to performers.
"You have to be patient, you have to deal with inebriation, and I'm kind of a smart alec on stage anyway, especially if I don't like the way people are treating other people, or treated me," noted Jason.
"But I refuse to not say ‘good job' to people, because I think it's important. I think anyone who gets onstage to do anything deserves credit because it's tough. I mean, I get nervous before every show I play, and I've been playing shows since I was 15."
Groth was happy to share some tips for potential karaoke singers. "The first thing you should do is not worry about screwing up, he said.
"That ruins karaoke performances like nothing else. A good karaoke performance, there's no pretense, there's all confidence, and it's a lot of fun without any expectations."
And if you need a song that will win people over, here's a few to try.
"Don't Stop Believing, for at least the first couple of years I was doing karaoke, that was a song that anybody could pick, and it would be fine," said Jason.
"That's a surefire hit – whether you can sing it or not. Bohemian Rhapsody usually wins them over. What's Up by 4 Non Blondes."
And if you really want to impress the host, don't bring your friends up to caterwaul through that Supremes song with you.
"Generally if there's more than three, it's going to be a failure," he said. "It's going to be a disaster. If you're leaving the confidence to the other people you're with, everybody all seems confident that someone else is going to pick up the ball and run with it. And it rarely happens."
Something For Everyone
Surprisingly, even trained musicians like Sarrah get the karaoke jitters. "I was kind of nervous my first time, (and my friend said) ‘Sarrah, you've got a Master's in Music Education. That's like having a PhD in Karaoke."
But as Sarrah explained, some untrained singers can do things she never could.
"I've been trained in jazz, and in early music, like Renaissance madrigals and things like that," said Sarrah. "So if someone asked me to sing Joan Jett, I'd probably screw up pretty badly."
Karaoke As An Equalizing Force
As far as Jason Evans Groth is concerned, there's one story that perfectly sums up his experience as a karaoke host. A few years ago, a pop singer (who will remain anonymous) was visiting Bloomington to record an album at a local studio.
He dropped in to karaoke one night, and had a member of his entourage request a song by 90s alt rock group Oasis. "He sings Wonderwall and gets everybody on their feet, to the front," said Jason.
"They're all singing along and waving their beers, singing along. He gets done, walks offstage. His handler comes up to me like a minute later. He's like ‘he had a really good time, he wants to do it again – but he wants to do his own song'."
"This blows my mind. This is like some kind of meta experience that I never expected to have."
Jason was happy to oblige, for nothing else but out of sheer curiosity of what would happen. Not to mention the twenty dollar bill that the singer's handler slipped him to jump the line.
"Yes, 20 buck will get you on stage at any karaoke bar," laughed Jason. "And I'm not ashamed to admit it."
"Anyway, he gets on stage, I start the song, and literally everybody in the audience starts to walk out of the room. So he's singing his own song. He's the guy who wrote it. He had sold out Fenway Park the week before."
"And nobody cared, you know? They'd rather see some anonymous guy singing Wonderwall by Oasis than singing his own song, for free, at the Bluebird."
So next time you're thinking about braving that karaoke stage, you can rest assured that no one is immune to public humiliation, and you'll do just fine!