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Thursday, June 12, 2003 02:20 pm

Everybody’s a star . . . not really

Springfield loves karaoke. So what if it can’t sing?

art246

The quality of the voice has little to do with singing. Placido Domingo can sing, but so can Willie Nelson. Singing depends on weight and balance and knowing when to shut up. It's not a matter of normal intelligence, because most singers can't do simple math or parallel park: They sing the way Hank Aaron hit a ball.

The hostess for the Sunday karaoke night at the motel lounge is shaped like a torpedo: Pointy blond hair piled on top of no neck, and beef to the heel. But she sings a throwaway country song with a sweet little voice as she revs up the first CD of the night.

At a nearby table sits a guy in a black cowboy hat with lots of feathers. His outfit makes him look like a cross between the Biker and the Cowboy from the Village People. He leafs through a song list the size of a telephone book. His date is short, round, and pleasant-looking, dressed in denim, with straight, long gray hair. She's brought along her own karaoke CD, which she takes out to study in the dim light.

Across the small room a man dressed all in black shuffles over to the table piled with sound equipment, handing the hostess a piece of paper with his selections. He moves with odd little jerks, but he's always smiling. It's not hard to see why: he's sitting with a pretty, young blond in a tight outfit. She fills out her own slip of paper.

Behind them is a man with a beard and a haircut that makes him look like a big hobbit. He's wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the Grinch on the front. He also smiles a lot. As he takes his request list to the hostess, he glances at the pretty girl. On his way back he says something to make her laugh.

Five people are ready to murder some pop songs tonight. The hostess calls up the Cowboy Hat, who takes the stage like George Jones. Then his companion, the Round Gray Woman, sings her own version of a Leo Sayer song, the '70s pop vocalist who always relied on lots of falsetto. The Grinch takes on a lengthy rock song by a Seattle grunge band, something dark about loneliness and depression--it goes on and on. The Man in Black tiny-steps his way to the middle of the dance floor before wheezing out Elvis's "Suspicious Minds." Finally the Pretty Girl walks up to the microphone and belts out Patsy Cline's "Crazy." The hostess thanks each of them in turn, and then they all move on to another musical round. This process is repeated all night long. It reminds me of the Richard Pryor line: There is nothing as scary as the sound of a bunch of white people trying to sing.

But while there was plenty of karaoke, no real singing was involved. Some of these people sang flat, some were sharp--most couldn't be heard above the thick sludge oozing out of the speakers. That didn't stop a man at the back of the bar from yelling "Whoo, whoo, whooeeee." He held up his cigarette lighter a little higher when the Pretty Girl took Patsy Cline for a spin.

Six construction workers flirt with the barmaid and have their backs to the karaoke most of the time. They all have gimme caps, advertising trucks and farm equipment, and streaks of grease on their matching shirts. They laugh and slap each other's backs. One of the guys with a long, white beard dares to round the bar and put an arm around the neck of the barmaid. They josh and take big swallows of beer.

A documentary about a stripper comes on the television over the bar. The six construction guys stare for about 30 seconds at the gyrations, and then go back to their horseplay. A little later one of them dances with the barmaid. Then another of them asks the Pretty Girl to dance and she exclaims "Sure!" loudly enough to be heard across the room.

The karaoke people make their fifth musical rotation. The Round Gray Woman is up, and for a change the mix is quiet--a spare arrangement of just a guitar and banjo. For once I can actually hear a voice in the mix. This highlights what's been depressingly wrong all night. A few of the karaoke people might be able to sing, but nobody could possibly hear when they're drowning in all that morbidly obese studio production. The Round Gray Woman almost sounds like one of my aunts singing an old hillbilly tune. I find myself wishing that I could hear her sing with a little string band or with other voices.

It's the Pretty Girl's turn. When the karaoke machine momentarily fails, the Grinch jokingly shouts, "Sing something a cappella!"

"I never sing a cappella," she says, as she lets out a scared little laugh.

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