Saturday, January 21, 2006

Is it really karaoke if nobody gets arrested?

October 28, 2005

Friday afternoon I was invited to a hotel Karaoke contest. Armed with a notion of my newfound creativity and the previous knowledge of how serious karaoke is in this country, there was no way I would be able to have peaceful sleep if I had knowingly passed up the opportunity to see my roommates singing their little hearts out. So at 2:30, I headed to the Nite Club on the 2nd floor of my house and had a great experience.

I have already described the private karaoke experience in China, as performed by Mattie, but this was a good opportunity to examine the Chinese public karaoke freestyle lifestyle (which to this point I had assumed was as rare as a unicorn). Karaoke in the States is a fairly simple yet highly entertaining phenomenon. Once a week, bar owners nationwide transform their white-trash establishment into Karaoke Night. Usually on a Tuesday or Thursday night, Whitey erases the $1.50 PBR special from the marker board and writes in beautiful misspelled cursive ‘Karaoke Night!!!!’ across the smoked-out yellowed board. Then, some of the tables are unstuck from the floor and moved around a bit to create a pseudo-stage atmosphere, or at the very least, a centralized location for ashtrays to be thrown.

Around 9:00, when the GM plant switches shifts or when the dart league is finished at Rusty’s, Camaros and Firebirds begin to trickle into the parking lot. The smell of Camel’s and Polo begin to fill the nose and the floor texture slowly changes from sticky semi-dry beer to slick-fresh beer as belligerent white folk begin their transformations into belligerent white folk who think they should sing. Patrons pass around several folders that contain the top karaoke hits of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, plus about three thousand songs that no one has ever sang in a karaoke bar.

Dirk finally finds the song he’s looking for – Stranglehold, the great Ted Nugent song – and swaggers up to the sign-up sheet to put his name and the song number right below Barb who will be singing Pat Benatar’s Heartbreaker. After successfully adding his name to the sacred karaoke book (next to the strip-poker touch screen game), he goes back to his seat and drinks three more Natural Lights, has a shot of Old Crow and chain-smokes Camel Lights while patiently awaiting his shot at the big time. About thirty minutes later, his name is called. Of course, he’s in the bathroom, and by the time he gets back, they’ve already moved on to Snake, who’s already halfway through his show stopping rendition of November Rain. Naturally, this infuriates Dirk and the only person he has to take his frustration out on is poor Snake on stage. He then picks up his girlfriends bottle of Coors and throws it at Snake, hitting him in the side of the face, splattering beer all over his best White Lion shirt.

Snake’ friends are obviously outraged and throw an entire table at Dirk and his girlfriend and panic ensues. The police are called, Snake and Dirk (who are brothers incidentally) are both arrested and Dirk will have to wait until next Thursday to sing Stranglehold. All in all, a pretty low key, low rent and surprisingly common American experience.

As far as I know, all karaoke in the States is the public Mullet-Madness style, and American karaoke being the only karaoke that I have any first hand experience at, I brought some safety goggles and a whole back pack of shit to throw. Needless to say, the Chinese karaoke style is slightly different than Thursdays at the Red Balloon.

I had never been into the Nite Club (capital letters because that’s the official name of the place, I’m surprised it’s even spelled right, or semi-right). Several times, I had approached the place, but always chickened out at the last minute. Judging from the steady stream of slutty chicks that flowed in and out of the place night after night and some vicious rumors, I knew that the place was basically a whorehouse, but apparently every now and then they put it to it’s God-given use (or Mao-given use).

Not really knowing what to expect, I cautiously approached the door of the Nite Club, hoping to peek in and get a general feel for the room and locate a place to set up camp. As soon as I looked through the door, I was recognized by someone and dragged into the room. Stimuli overload ensued. I was trying to take a good look at the room, but a throng of people crowded around me (not to be confused with a ‘thong’ of people, which would have been really uncomfortable). The room was packed with roommates, all aspects of the hotel were represented in droves; housekeeping, cooks, wait staff, security guards, management, hair-styling whores, even the guys that shake the drops from your junk in the restrooms were there (no thanks guys, I don't usually shake hands).

The room was like a disco bar from the 70’s, complete with neon and lighted floors, except that there were no people dancing or cocaine. Instead of dancing and narcotics, there were three rows of couches all facing the stage. The couches were packed with roommates; as were the booths on the sides, add them to the hordes of people in the standing room only section brought the total to at least 150 people, all wanting looking at me. Not really staring at me with the normal China-grey stares, but looking at me and smiling. I felt bad for whoever was singing at the time, because my presence created quite a distraction. People were going out of their way to come and greet me, shake my hands, slap me on the back, take my picture, sign chests (one minute sir, I haven't forgotten about you). I felt like Puff Daddy. I tried to sneak off and stand in the corner to observe quietly, but my size, unusual nature and constant presence in the hotel prevents me from doing anything quietly and unnoticed. I was tossed around through a gauntlet of roommates, I may have even signed an autograph, it was probably just my bar tab from the night before.

Jenny saw me and whisked away to a safe place in the VIP section – the couches. Everyone stood up in my row to let me through, kind of like that jackass who keeps going to the snack bar at a movie theater. Keep in mind, all this time; some poor girl is standing on stage singing her heart out. The front row had all the contest judges, including the hotel general manger, who stood up in the middle of this girl’s song and shook my hand.

Finally, after creating this typical massive distraction, I was able to sit and watch some good ol’ karaoke.

In the corner of the room lurked the familiar shape of a Karaoke Cerebro machine; this one was industrial sized, for song contests of up to 40,000 competitors. Apparently the day before, each person submitted the song that they would destroy onstage and all entries were painstakingly entered into the command center, at which time the machine spew forth a tickertape of the order of competitors. By this time, everyone’s name was reduced to a four-digit number, much like the Nazis or my company. This was handed out to the judges and posted at staff high-traffic areas (such as the locker room and the spittin’ hole) so everyone knew what time they would perform.

The stage was a raised platform of clear Plexiglas that stood about four inches above the regular floor. Under the stage were various neon lights and, what appeared to be, a decorative rock garden. There were spotlights at all kinds of ‘cool’ angles and colors throughout the room. In the middle of the stage was the karaoke podium. It was a thin triangular piece of clear plastic that gradually enlarged to a flat, angled surface that contained, what I can only guess was the karaoke television (the TV that played the bad video and displayed the embarrassing words that the horrible singer was supposed to try to duplicate). It kind of reminded me of a sci-fi evil warlord command control center, the one that he always appears behind during the evil transmission where he tells the entire world how he will rule and destroy all those who stand in their place. Of course, instead of an evil warlord, a mouse-like Chinese housekeeper commanded the world, or at least those who were willing to pay attention in the Nite Club.

The official emcee was Langfang International Hotel’s version of eye-candy. She girl stepped onstage with the strut and swagger of an MTV Spring Break model and carried the microphone like a wet T-shirt contest hose. She spoke with energy that only cheerleaders have and smiled the fake toothy grin of a weatherman. Her job was simple, introduce the next person and hand the microphone off to him or her, then get the hell off the stage. The only thing that could be considered a challenge was that she only had about three minutes to do this before the next song started playing automatically. Only a true KTV professional could manage under these conditions.

After the contestant was introduced, he or she (it was about 80% ‘she’s) came up to the stage, grabbed the microphone and began to sing. The microphone had some strange echo-feedback that made the singer sound like they were singing in a canyon (I also noticed this when I was trying to beatbox at the private KTV jam-session that I went to with Mattie last week, so I think it’s normal). The transformation that took place in these people when they got onstage and gripped the mic was remarkable. So remarkable, that I am convinced that the microphones are actually magic microphones, transforming feeble, timid people into loud-and-proud musicians with no regard for their own image. This would account for the self-confidence blown forth by the professional ‘musicians’ in this country who would argue that the single quotes should be dropped from this statement.

Each contestant was greeted with appropriate applause based on his or her rank in the hotel and the corresponding click. Managers were greeted heartily, while cooks or cock-shakers were mostly ignored. During the song, people would applaud at seemingly random times, I could never really figure it out. I think a lot of it was the group mentality, if one person started clapping, everyone else joined in (I swatted a fly on my leg once and that set of a string of applause like a carpet bomb). The key – don't be left out, give everyone their dues; if someone thinks a singer deserves applause, we all should feel the same way. How cute. It kind of reminded me of the pathetic status of children’s sports in America where the score is not kept, which teaches our future that there are no losers in life, just ignorant mathematicians. I will destroy these children in my workplace until I retire.

The other hip thing to do was to hand the singer flowers during their performance. One of the singer’s friends would go onstage in the middle of their song and hand them a flower, and of course, everyone would clap. After a while, one flower turned into two or three and two or three turned into whole beauty contest bouquets. “Where the hell are all these flowers coming from?” I thought. I’m looking around for a FTD shop in the corner, but I couldn't see one. After a while, I realized that they were just using the same damn flowers over and over again. The singer would get done singing, go sit down and hold the flowers until someone came and took them to give to the next singer. That’s some ghetto shit people, recycling flowers. I guess if it were me, I’d be happy to have someone take the flowers away from me, that would just save me the trouble of tossing them on my way to the car (and then trying to explain why I didn't keep them, and why I’m always such a inconsiderate bastard. Don't you love me?!)

About halfway through the afternoon’s performances, the general manager was asked to sing a song and he obliged. He walked up to the stage with thunderous applause, boy band type of shit, Beatles reunion in Hell type of noise and grabbed the microphone. He said a few words, everyone applauded again and then the music started.

“Holy crap! What the hell is that sound?” I thought there was some industrial metal ripping machine or a pig getting skinned alive somewhere in the room. Despite the horrendous voice, over the course of his four-minute song, he was showered with applause and presented every flower this side of Shanghai (which is believe was Southeast of me), I could barely see his head sticking out of the top of the flower pile by the end (What a bunch of kiss-asses.)

Jenny had her turn and turned out to be a pretty good singer. She overcame the pathetic music of this country and actually sounded decent. Mu Duo was pushing me to go up on stage to give her a flower, but a sudden bout of shyness kept me firmly planted in my seat. Thinking back to the distraction I made when I simply walked into the room, there was no telling what would happen if I actually approached the stage, plus Jenny would likely piss her pants out of embarrassment, and I really didn't want to see that.

The whole time I was sitting there, I was treated like royalty. They asked me if I would like to sing (that’s one of the stupidest questions I’ve ever been asked). They kept bringing me bottles of water (hot and cold), hot towels (like a quarterback on the sideline), a pen (for autographs, I assumed), and, of course, the ever present massage queries (no thanks, just here to toss some ashtrays at drunkards).

During and after each performance, the judges were working hard to fill out the contestant forms, this was a contest after all, and there was a MP3 player at stake. Even though the forms were in Chinese, I could guess, almost to the stroke, what was on the forms (appearance, singing voice, stage presence, energy, number of flowers received, number of teeth, body odor, the list gets pretty boring after that.) This being a communist country, however, I was concerned of the ramifications to the judge’s families if they actually picked a winner. In this society, you can’t just tell someone that they are a better singer than someone else, are you crazy? In the end, all 100 contestants received a 51%, straight across the board, better than average, but not enough to elevate the individual to some misunderstood ‘elite’ status. Long live China!

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