My turn at the mic

Reflections on the appeal of karaoke after a night at the VFW on Lyndale

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Thoreau wrote those words along the idyllic shores of Walden Pond, in the quiet solitude and magnificence of the natural world. He had never been to the Country Bar on Lyndale and Lake, or just down the way to the VFW, or the U Otter Stop Inn in Northeast. Had he lived in our modern times, he would see that man’s desperation has in fact become quite vocal, gratingly loud, and often out of key, like a wounded duck drowning in Walden Pond — but not drowning fast enough.

Karaoke has given amplification to desperation — to the drowning duck in all of us who will never make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Instead, we are destined to murky back rooms with improvised and often sticky stages, remnant perhaps, of where the pond dried up and left behind what now constitutes the mass of men.

The first song I sang in a karaoke bar was Neil Diamond’s "Sweet Caroline" — arguably the most karaokeed artist, if not song, in bars around the nation today. At the time, Neil gave my then-21-year-old heart the opportunity to bare its tadpole soul, with just the right amount of ambiguous lyrics coupled with a melody that best expressed my inner being at the time. I’ve done everything from Frank Sinatra to the Eurythmics since, generally while experiencing varying
degrees of intoxication.

But I still haven’t quite figured out the deeper meaning of karaoke, the truth, the core — the where it began — as Neil might intone. On some level it must be the quest for fame, even in small circles, that drives us out-of-tune impersonators to take to the stage; although the odds are we will never see the bright lights and bitter judgment of "American Idol," no matter how much we desire it.

Of course, for some, it is not about fame at all, but is an expression of the identification the singer feels with the words or music of the song and its original artist; the baring of the soul through a shared emotion (watered down a bit, perhaps, through the buffer of beer and a bar generally full of more strangers than friends).

And if karaoke does represent these things — soul baring, the quest for fame and favor (or disfavor, depending on one’s talent) — it seems to me still beautifully human. That a person who more often than not sounds like a drowning duck can take to the stage and sing, "good times never seemed so good," without really knowing who Caroline is or what she could possibly mean to Neil, while those of us in the crowd blissfully cheer him on in spite of his lack of skills — that, to me, seems to be the mass of men — and so much the better that humanity take our desperation to the stage.

So with a brave contingent of Southwest Journal folks and tag-alongs, I set out to find the meaning of karaoke on a recent Friday. From the VFW’s karaoke star Judy Wheaton who sang a Patsy Cline song with fervor and dedication, to the last survivor (according to his grandson) of Pearl Harbor’s USS Nevada playing harmonica with his grandson, I believe we found something close to meaning in this popular pastime.

[Click here to listen to Wheaton.]

[Click here to listen to Pearl Harbor survivor Ernest Mattson, 92, playing the harmonica with his grandson Robert Mitchell, 37, who sang the Eagles’ "That Easy, Peaceful Feeling."]