What is it about a karaoke machine? When you turn one on, normally quiet, dignified people suddenly act as though they are in the privacy of their own shower and start emoting like Little Richard on acid. I think a survey of any karaoke bar would quickly show that most people should barely be allowed to sing at all, let alone in public. Carrying a tune, it turns out, is a lot harder than it looks. Hitting the right notes is, for some of us, downright impossible.
I can still remember the days of my choir singing at St. Michael’s, my childhood parish. I was nothing if not an enthusiastic singer. And considering that the choir was all girls, we had to make a pretty loud noise to fill that big church. (I have no idea why boys didn’t sing in the choir unless the nuns just viewed it as another chance for too much boy-girl interaction.)
Well, tmaking a loud noise while singing was right up my alley. I think that phrase probably describes my singing better than any other I have heard used by people talking to me about why I shouldn’t bank on a career in musical theater. So when Sister frantically motioned with her arms for us to be louder to drown out the gigantic organ next to us, I obliged at the top of my voice. It was usually about then that Sister would look at me directly and, with a not so subtle motion of her hands, indicate that perhaps I should sing quieter. And quieter. And quieter. Till, when I was basically mouthing the words, she would smile her approval that I’d reached the level she desired.
Many, many years later in Barrow, I made a dear friend in a man named Richard who had an extensive background in musical theater – which just goes to prove once again that the Alaskan bush is a pretty amazing amalgam of people. He was working with some other friends of mine to get a community theater started there. I explained that I would be happy to help in any way I could except for singing. Richard – a kind and dear soul – insisted that everyone could sing if they just had a little confidence and didn’t try to sound like Pavarotti on their first try. I tried to explain the church choir experience to him, as well as the many subsequent moments where I found myself singing merrily along with the radio in the car only to be brought up short by the dead silence and shocked expressions on my passengers’ faces. He would have none of that. He told me to sing a simple song. I did and his face took on a rather pained expression. Then he told me to just try to hum or keep a beat. He threw out random notes and asked me to repeat them. The pained expression grew. Finally, in what I knew was for him a very difficult admission, he looked at me and told me that I was the first person he ever met who had the exact opposite of perfect pitch.
Having lived through my grade school choir experience, this news did not devastate me. I just felt bad for Richard since he seemed so sure he could teach someone he loved how to do something he loved so much. I feared I might have scarred him.
Given this background, you can understand my feelings of relief when I found out that a family 50th birthday party I had missed had included a karaoke machine. After Thanksgiving dinner, we sat down and watched a tape of the party. And there stood my cousin Joe, a paragon of conservative rectitude that makes Ronald Reagan look a little too much to the left, belting out I Got You Babe with a bunch of other cousins who were all in various stages of a good six hour party. And he was awful. Just awful. I actually could say I found someone who was worse than me when it came to carrying a tune. He sang every note he could think of, though never in the right place at the right time.
But when he stood there singing My Way, the Italian American anthem, and everyone else dropped out before the final chorus, and he brought it home all alone – just him and that karaoke machine – I knew that beneath his pressed underwear and monogrammed T-shirts, there beat the heart of a man I truly loved. A man who sang worse than me.
Which just goes to prove that karaoke machines should be licensed and regulated for the protection of all of us who sing loudly and with feeling, sure we sound exactly like Sinatra, when in fact we are creating recorded evidence that will be used against us when our children are checking out nursing homes.