I am hopeless at karaoke. I can't sing. And I'm not one of those nervous types who will eventually take the microphone and struggle through an endearingly timid performance. I have an unpleasant singing voice and I am always out of tune.
My lack of talent, before I entirely recognised it, led to some uncomfortable evenings in Hong Kong. Persuaded to come along to the karaoke lounge after a meal, I would eventually pick up the microphone and have a go at one of my favourite songs. Fifteen to 20 seconds in, the clapping would fade away and everyone would start to pay very close attention to their drinks. The conclusions of my performances were generally met with uncomfortable silences and polite smiles.
Realising this, I have now come to fear karaoke. It's hard to enjoy doing something that you are completely useless at, but doing it in front of other people is about a thousand times worse. So I make every effort to avoid situations where singing might be called for. I simply decline invitations, feign illness, or slip quietly out the door pretending that I need to join a conference call. I do this not just for myself, but for everyone else, too. As hard as it is for me to sing, it must be even harder for people to listen to.
But it is difficult to completely avoid the karaoke lounge. Let down your guard and you can be quickly plunged right into the middle of a karaoke nightmare.
While visiting Tokyo last week I attended an excellent dinner in an unbelievably expensive teppanyaki restaurant where the lobster is still moving when it is placed on the grill, even despite the fact that it has previously been sliced in half. My hosts were clients, and in an unusual break with protocol, it was they who settled the bill. So I could hardly refuse when they invited me to go for a drink afterwards.
Going for an after-dinner drink in Tokyo quite often means sitting in a lavishly decorated club trying to communicate with hostesses dressed in evening gowns whose only word of English is "shopping". But tonight we went to what looked like an ordinary bar.
It was called The Right On Now and it was pleasantly crowded, but not so that there weren't a few empty tables. There were no obvious signs, not in English anyway, that this was anything but a friendly drinking hole.
After bringing over some drinks, one of my clients asks me, "You like Elvis, Alan?"
"Elvis Presley, sure," I said, "Who doesn't?"
"That's good. I choose Elvis Presley song for you."
I didn't have long to ponder what this meant. The entertainment at The Right On Now quickly started up with the announcement that Jimmy Yamamoto would now be singing Crazy Little Thing Called Love by Queen. The lights came on and Jimmy took to the small stage at the front of the room that I hadn't noticed.
I was in a karaoke bar. And not a karaoke bar like they have in Hong Kong, where my shame and embarrassment is shared in a private lounge with only the people who invited me. This karaoke bar was completely public. The entire room watched each performance. I was in big trouble.
Jimmy's performance ended, another performer was invited to the stage, and some of the blood returned to my face as I noticed that most of the bar wasn't really paying attention to the singing. And a lot of the performers weren't really much good. They were better than me, everybody is better than me, but it wasn't like accidentally walking on to the set of American Idol. I wasn't going to stand out too badly for my lack of talent. Perhaps I could do this after all.
I might even enjoy it. My clients will think I can't sing, but perhaps I can jump around a bit or do some play acting to make it more entertaining. And this is a bar rather than a karaoke lounge, it's not as though people have to listen to me if they don't want to. A few more ordinary performances went by, and then suddenly with a bit more enthusiasm the announcer yelled: "Coming up next we have Rockin' Ryota Takahashi with the Elvis classic Blue Suede Shoes.
Rockin' Ryota Takahashi hit the stage and everything changed. This guy had the moves, he had the voice, and most importantly, he had the crowd's attention. He blasted through Blue Suede Shoes like the King himself.
"Thank you very much," he crooned as the last note sounded. The room cheered, and right then I entered my personal hell.
Rockin' Ryota left the crowd hungry for more. All eyes were turned towards the stage, and the voice of the announcer boomed out: "And now we have Alan Alanson, also with Blue Suede Shoes."
Not everyone loves karaoke
Monday, June 21, 2010