For someone who loves music and singing as much as I do, it’s surprising that I only heard about karaoke when I was in my 20s. I can’t remember the exact circumstances now, but I know that once I had learnt that it involved singing with actual backing tracks like a real pro (or a semi-pro, at least), I was itching for an opportunity to do it. My university friends granted me one when they took me blindfolded to a karaoke pub (the old-fashioned kind, with a central, common stage area) for one birthday. Unfortunately, while I remember the experience of trying to walk straight with a blindfold on and five girls holding on to me but being absolutely no help, and I remember the dark, seedy atmosphere of the pub, I don’t have memories of the actual karaokeing – not what kind of music was playing or whether any of us actually went up on stage and sang.
When I started working as a teacher, I was placed in school with one other new teacher. We both became good friends, mostly because the pressure of being a first-year teacher causes you to run quickly to the only other person in school who looks as terrified as you do, but also because we shared a similar sense of humour and taste for music. We sat back-to-back in the staff room, a long aisle between us, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to be chatting to and/or singing with each other without even facing each other. Teachers around us, in our aisle and the ones nearby, used to comment on our chatty behaviour – mostly, people were amused by us, but I’m sure we pissed some people off as well. My point is, this colleague and I were always bursting into song at random moments – all we needed was a single line of utterance that just happened to also be a line from a song, and both of us would be belting the song within seconds. We were often on the same wavelength, so it was easy for us to predict what line of thought (or rather, music) the other was taking.
It made perfect sense, then, to go for the first of many closed-door karaoke sessions with this friend – a concept I had not realised existed until that point. I don’t know if karaoke joints are like this all over the world, but here in Singapore, you can pay a pre-determined amount for a fixed number of hours (usually two to three), and you get a cushy, soundproof room (the size of which depends on the size of your party) equipped with a large screen and an attached karaoke set (mic, controller, etc). You can sing as badly as you want, and no-one has to bear it except the people who made the mistake of going with you. No drunk strangers, no secondhand embarrassment, no stage fright. It’s a pretty good arrangement, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also want that quintessential American TV show karaoke experience, where I meet a handsome stranger after drunkenly embarrassing myself on stage and we get married and live happily ever after.
But, no, this sort of arrangement means you get to pick the friends who have a similar taste in music as you, sit in a cosy, private room for a few hours, and bellow your lungs out. After a few sessions, you know everyone’s go-to karaoke song, the one they have to sing at least once every session because it’s practically become a tradition. (Mine is Zombie by The Cranberries.) People show sides of themselves in karaoke rooms you don’t normally get to see, especially if they’re friends from work – surprising range, a penchant for rap, an ability to harmonise, a taste for obscure music – and it’s fun to let loose and watch your friends relax, too, without having to worry about judgement.
My next mission is to find a karaoke place (of decent quality) that does Hindi songs – it’s been surprisingly hard to come by, making me have to rely on the home-made alternative – karaoke versions of songs from YouTube projected on my flatscreen TV. And while it’s just as pleasant to sit around with a group of friends, no music, no equipment, and sing ’90s Indian TV ad jingles with the aid of only nostalgia and memory, it would be nice to get the same cushy, high-quality experience for Bollywood music that is currently available with English music, and be able to share it with a totally different group of friends.
I know some people take karaoke very, very seriously, and for others, the thought of singing in public and/or group singing is their own personal hell. For me, it’s an activity that both allows me to indulge in a personal hobby and share it with a close group of friends, and I hope I get many, many more opportunities to keep doing it.