In Japanese, karaoke means "empty orchestra." In English, it can mean "good, clean fun," "four minutes of barroom fame" or "pathetic freak show." It all depends on who you ask.
No matter how you regard karaoke-if you regard it at all-San Diego has one of the most flourishing scenes in the country. Our fair city boasts more than 150 clubs hosting regular "KJs" (karaoke jockeys) and two periodicals-San Diego Karaoke Star and San Diego Scene-which keep the karaoke community up to date.
For many, exposure to a "karaoke community" may sound like an alternative punishment system for first-time criminals. At K-bars (my jargon, not theirs), the regulars can be cliquish. Steady "societies" or communities occupy different joints. Johnny Stewart, the publisher of San Diego Scene, has been hosting karaoke locally for more than 15 years, and he confirms this impression.
"Like any bar, every place gets its own core group of people," he says. "I was at the Four Points Inn for years, and my show was 90 percent regulars."
So, do the regulars resent newcomers-those fly-by-night no-voices who stop in on a lark?
"No," Stewart asserts. "Regulars have been hearing the same old songs over and over again, and anyone who brings a new song is welcome."
However, Stewart adds that singers who don't assess a club's atmosphere and choose songs accordingly may get a cold reception. Blow through an Erasure tune in a country karaoke bar, and prepare yourself for an icy response.
A rather sad case in point is Di-mond Jim's in Chula Vista during a "Karaoke Parody" contest. Di-mond Jim's regularly wins "Best South Bay Karaoke," and with its populist cross section of young and old, ethnically mixed, ready-to-party patrons, it's easy to see why. But even here, where Steve the doorman recognizes newcomers at once and introduces them around the club, the better one understands the "vibe" the better he'll be loved when he takes the stage.
Four finalists compete in the "Karaoke Parody" contest, which challenges contestants to rewrite their favorite songs with humor that would make Weird Al Yankovich proud.
Beforehand, David, a 32-year-old in a leather motorcycle jacket who has been coming to Di-mond Jim's for about a year (and who says karaoke has "brought me out of my shell" and "improved my quality of life") discusses how diligently he's prepared his lyrics at home, pulling a final draft from his pocket as evidence.
He's rewritten a Creed song as a paean to drinking. The contest prize is $100, but David's competing for the fun of it, and, I suspect, the glory.
Yet when the contest begins, things don't look good for David. It's hard to compete against Sammy, a regular whose mere name read over the loudspeaker elicits semi-pandemonium from the crowd. Clad in a black t-shirt, black sweatpants and accessorized with the talisman of anti-hip-a black fanny pack-the stout, 40-something Sammy takes the stage and announces he will be turning 4 Non Blondes' "What's Going On?" into a parody called, "Are You Gay?"
Sammy doesn't appear to have memorized his lyrics, but he successfully improvises his modifications and ends with the triumphantly crowd-pleasing, "25 years and my life is still/ trying to get up that great big hill of hope/ but I'm too fat." Charm, it seems, gets you farther than planning in this contest.
Sammy wins, of course. Afterward, David is at the bar, drinking by himself. And though it's all fun and games, I can't bring myself to ask him how he feels about the loss. I let him become his own paean to drinking, and move along.
When not parodying, regulars at Di-mond Jim's deliver mostly heartfelt ditties in the Queensryche and Linkin Park vein. And although some of the younger patrons come in clubwear, most kick it in jeans and t-shirts. In other words, it would be hard to picture the Di-mond Jim's crowd very happy at Scolari's Office in North Park.
At least 85 percent of the patrons at Scolari's Office are under 30. Nearly all of them sport tattoos, piercings and duds that The Strokes would envy. The only dress code seems to be irony and cartoonishness, and the musical selections adhere to the same standards.
Hardly anyone sings well. The object instead is high cheesiness. A Queensryche song would be appreciated just as much here as at Di-mond Jim's, but for opposite reasons.
On the night I visit, the kids go nuts for a chubby boy's emphatic rendition of "Whip It," which must be and is embellished by a pantomimed whip. "Total Eclipse of the Heart," belted out by a smiling goth and an Elvis Costello doppelganger, suits the club's mood. A teeny fellow in a hooded sweatshirt does Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" with a power that's comically incongruous with his stature. He sends the already loud bar into paroxysms.
Then, the best singer of the night steps up. She's unprepossessing, thin and plainly dressed. As she sings what should be a show-stopping "Son of a Preacher Man," she smiles prettily, obviously enjoying her own talent, perhaps a bit surprised by it. Apparently, this is no fun; 10 kids with cigarettes in hand stream outside to smoke.
How did such a uniform group of iconoclasts find one another? Kaci, 22, looking 12 with pigtails and braces, explains while smoking, "Look on sandiegopunk.com. Anyone who's on there is here Sunday night. Everybody knows each other here, we all love each other. We've got a camaraderie going."
Most karaoke singers are eager to gush about how close and supportive their clubs are. But nasty tensions between customers and KJs mar some clubs. Dani, a 32-year-old teacher, is very happy among the unpretentious, youthful crowd at the Ould Sod on Adams Avenue in Normal Heights, where she sings on Thursdays. But recollections of other clubs fuel her rancor.
Standing outside the Ould Sod, Dani gestures up the street, saying, "Over there at O'Grady's, [the KJ] favors males. I mean, you could wait for hours to sing if you're female.
"Or at the Lamplighter," she continues, "you have to pay 20 bucks and then you wait two hours anyway."
From lines at the bank to queues on automated answering systems, we are trained to believe that our requests will be handled in order. Line up, wait your turn, and you will be served. But with karaoke bars, this simply doesn't happen.
Nino, the Mafioso-chic KJ at the Lamplighter in Mission Hills, defends his practice of bumping up customers who tip.
"Hey, it's like any service industry." he says. "You treat your server right, and he'll treat you right." Also, he adds, on a weekend night, about 120 people sign up for about 60 singing slots. He's got to make some choices. (Although his selectiveness can sometimes lead to trouble-two thwarted warblers once jumped over his console and attacked him.)
Daryl, the KJ at Scolari's Office, plots his singing list strategically. "I want to get the new people up as quickly as possible, so they feel comfortable and happy, but I've also got to take care of my regulars," he says.
There are certainly enough karaoke joints in San Diego that no one has to go somewhere that makes them unhappy. Hayden, a 32-year-old waiter at the San Yisidro IHOP who just made the switch to Di-mond Jim's, can attest to that.
"The last KJ was very unfair to me," he explains. "People would walk in, and after two or three people, they'd be singing. But me, I would have to wait through the entire rotation. I got very angry and went someplace else."
Hayden admits, however, that his lack of karaoke decorum may be the reason he was overlooked.
"Well... I'm the kind of person who loves to be hated. I'll run with the mic, I'll go outside with the mic, I'll run anywhere... I don't sit there with my hand in my pocket singing. I'm hyperactive. I was hyperactive as a child."
For Hayden, like many karaoke regulars, his reason for getting on the mic is quite vain. There are just certain people who love the spotlight.
"[I do it] for attention," he admits. "If I don't sing, I'll do other things. I've been known to stand up in the middle of the San Diego Trolley and shout, "Hi, I'm Hayden, and I'm going to Palm Avenue!'"
Hayden's a pretty interesting guy, but I don't get to visit with him long. The intro to "Baby's Got Back" begins, and Hayden takes it as his cue to transform into a "seal." All at once, he jumps onto the dance floor, ostentatiously claps his "flippers" and barks loudly to the beat. He keeps it up through the whole song.
Di-mond Jim's' KJ takes to Hayden, announcing when the song finishes, "You can catch him five nights a week at Sea World."
Kurt Cobain once told a Newsweek reporter that karaoke was all "drunken secretaries singing "Feelings.'" It could also be special education teachers singing "Short Dick Man," as witnessed with great embarrassment one Sunday night at Taylor's in Pacific Beach.
Cobain surely had a point. But San Diego's hyperactive karaoke scene shows how, for many people, the empty orchestra is more than just a drunken mistake.