The karaoke DJ tries to dissuade me from "Need You Tonight" by offering another INXS song.
"Maybe you should try 'New Sensation,'" he says. "I like that song." He is being diplomatic about it, but I sense pity in his voice, underscored with vague dread. The song is arguably the sexiest song in existence, but it's the kind of sweaty, cheesy sexiness that could only exist in the '80s. It's the product of an era when drummers who played hexagonal, electronic drums could be considered sexy; or an era when shivering and shaking from a coke-binge comedown could be mistaken for lust.
The Ken Club, on the other hand, is decidedly not sexy. I mean, God bless that little dive in the heart of one of San Diego's more affluent neighborhoods, but I wonder if anyone or anything has ever been sexy within its walls. The karaoke DJ's trepidation, perhaps, comes from imagining the outcome of playing the song. Will the patrons, realizing their own dormant desires, turn the divey bar into an orgy of blood mixed with flat Bud Lights?
Or, more realistically, the DJ thinks it's going to suck. And with good reason, because... c'mon. Look at me.
The intro to the song pulses out of The Ken's speaker system. The beat is the equivalent to a musical deconstruction of a dry hump—which is, regretfully, the only move with which I know how to dance to INXS.
I hold the microphone to my mouth. "It's about to get real sexy in here," I say.
That is an actual thing that comes out of my mouth.
The next three minutes is a display of je ne sais quois—the opposite of panty-dropping? I fight to avoid singing the guitar riff; I don't succeed. My sultry whisper sounds more like the satisfaction I get after eating an excellent burrito than seduction. For some reason, my voice takes on a nasally falsetto at the line, "there's something about you girl that makes me sweat," with "sweat" becoming a grotesque, two-syllable word: swe-yat. Once the song ends, two friends tell me, independently of each other—that that was the first time they had heard David Byrne sing an INXS song.
Overall, this is one of my more successful karaoke performances.
The thing is, I love karaoke. I spend ample amounts of time listening to songs that could be potential material, often while playing out theoretical scenarios in my head in which I whip a crowd into the same kind of Eminem-in-8 Mile exhalation. But the ratio of the time I spend listening to potential jams versus actually performing them would depress a statistician. I think a couple minor reasons for this imbalance may be my inability to carry a tune, harmonize, know lyrics, choose good songs, or appear like a relatively stable person onstage. Add the irrational fear of speaking into a microphone and my obsession seems quixotic in its futility.
After the relative success at The Ken, I thought back to all the times I've sung karaoke since moving to San Diego. Turns out I've sung exactly four times in the past five years, counting this recent performance.
Here they are, ranked from worst to best by the amount of shame I felt at the time of performance.
Location: Chorus Karaoke
Date: November 8, 2011
Song performed: "Rosanna" by Toto
Shame level: Very high
Chorus Karaoke on Convoy Street is one of those private-room joints, and the occasion was a friend's birthday. At the time, these were new friends, so it was during that strange honeymoon phase where I wanted to appear like someone who's worthy of friendship.
This was also two months after my wedding, so there was also pressure of not convincing my wife that she had made a life-long mistake. Experiencing honeymoon phases on two fronts made me extra eager to prove my worth, and nothing good happens when I get too eager.
I can only hope that one day, perhaps on my deathbed, some divine clarity presents me with the reason why I chose "Rosanna." It's not a song that will win friends. Apart from a terrible '80s sitcom-opening-credits vibe to the thing, it's got the longest instrumental sections where all you can do is bounce along with them and pretend that your marriage is not falling through your fingers.
Location: Pants Karaoke at Eleven (currently The Hideout)
Date: November 13, 2011
Song performed: "99 Problems" by Jay Z
Shame level: High
After the weak-ass Toto performance, I was determined to redeem myself. I spent the following week practicing Jay Z's ode to sensitivity and if you've never practiced a karaoke song then, well, congrats on not being desperate for approval.
However, no amount of practicing could've prepared me for the breathlessness caused by anxiety. I wasn't even through the first verse before I was gasping for air like late-career Axl Rose. I did nail the white cop's voice in the second verse (natch), and when I got off stage, someone complimented my jacket.
Location: Joann's Restaurant (Idyllwild, CA)
Date: Jan 2, 2015
Song Performed: "Rebel Yell" by Billy Idol
Shame level: Surprisingly low
It took me four years before I found the confidence to get on stage again. In this case, the stage was a sparsely populated diner in Idyllwild on the day after the New Year. It was cold outside, and I was fighting off an illness, but screaming Idol's signature "YOW!" into the mic, undoubtedly ruining at least one family's dinner, made it all worth it.
Ryan is the author of Horror Business. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford