I’m telling you this for your own good: Don’t ever hand me a microphone and encourage me to burst into song. “If your singing was a meal,” someone once told a would-be crooner, “it would be a burnt, undercooked TV dinner.” That about sums up my skill level in this arena.
Think I’m exaggerating? Many years ago in Kobe, Japan, I went to a small karaoke bar with Rich and his Navy buddy Phil. After everyone else had contributed a song, each better than the last, eventually the microphone came around to us. As a nod to our Western roots, somebody dug out the lyrics to “Danny Boy.” A tune began playing that sounded nothing like any version of “Danny Boy” I’ve ever heard. Gamely, the three of us attempted to sing along, but it was pretty grim. When the music (I almost typed “torture”) stopped, I looked around and realized there was nobody left in the room but us and the staff. We had cleared the bar.
So you may be wondering why, last Thursday, I suggested to Rich that we attend karaoke night at our local dive bar.
He blanched a little. “Promise me we don’t have to get up sing.”
“That’s a given,” I said. “We can listen to others, drink beer, and make snarky remarks among ourselves. As totally unmusical people, we can make this a great Nutters’ foray into one of California’s subcultures.”
Professional that I am, I did my in-depth research — which is to say I skimmed the karaoke page on Wikipedia. It explained that in the 1960s, advances in recording technology made it easy to provide background music and a microphone for public sing-alongs. Japan led the way, creating the name from kara 空 "empty" and ōkesutora オーケストラ "orchestra.” Hmmm, not a very exciting a backstory.
Maybe AI had more to offer. What songs, I asked Bard and ChatGPT, might I expect to hear? Encouragingly, they listed many familiar tunes: "Dancing Queen," "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Sweet Caroline," "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," and other classic wedding DJ stuff. OK, great, familiar ground. I noticed "Danny Boy" wasn’t mentioned; they probably retired that one after the hatchet job we did on it in Kobe.
Bard also produced some personal advice: “Of course, there are many other great karaoke songs out there. The best song to sing at karaoke is the one that you enjoy the most and that you think you'll have the most fun singing. So don't be afraid to try something different and step outside of your comfort zone. You might just surprise yourself with how well you do.” Yeah, right. Or how badly. Bard, you have no idea what you’re messing with here!
The singing was supposed to start at 10:00 pm, so Rich and I arrived at 9:30 to find a handful of middle-aged and older patrons who had clearly been holding up the bar since early afternoon. They knew what was coming, pulled themselves upright, and staggered out into the night.
Then the younger crowd began trickling in. A smartly dressed young man in a snappy white fedora, who went by the moniker Mad Hatter, began setting up sound equipment. More young people arrived, many of whom greeted the Mad Hatter as an old friend.
And when I say “old,” of course I mean “of long-standing,” not “advanced in years.” By now I’d realized I was at least four decades older than most of the new arrivals. One kid named Stella was there celebrating her twenty-first birthday with her first legal drink. To give them credit, the youngsters were unfailingly polite to me and didn’t treat me as a downer sucking all the cool out of the evening (as I’d once felt during a gruesome InterNations meetup in Stockholm). Mostly the twenty-something twenty-somethings in the room were far too busy sipping cocktails and flirting with one another to pay attention to me. Or, somewhat more surprisingly, to the singers.
In the movies, whenever someone picks up a microphone, everyone’s attention is riveted; the crowd listens raptly, perhaps chiming in on the chorus, perfectly on key and in harmony. Here the singers were pretty much ignored, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why. A few — most notably Andre, the bar’s bouncer — were brilliant, but most, to put it kindly, were less so. Egged on by their new best friends, that third vodka tonic, and possibly Bard’s advice, they had clearly decided, “Hell, yeah. No fear. Tonight I am stepping outside my comfort zone. I’m going for it.”
“This is incredible,” I told Rich, shouting over a particularly screechy soprano. “With standards like this, you and I could get up and perform.”
“No, we couldn’t,” he said firmly. “Don’t even think about it.”
I didn’t recognize the first half-dozen songs, but then Cory got up to croon Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” That’s when it happened: people all along the bar — including me — began singing along. It wasn’t like in the movies; nobody could hear us over the din, and we weren’t exactly in tune, on beat, or, in some cases, still in any condition to read the lyrics off the screen correctly. But none of that mattered. Because the very act of singing, especially in a group, is not only fun but has profound mental and physical health benefits that last long after the Mad Hatter puts away his microphone.
What benefits? Singing is like yoga for our respiratory and circulatory systems. It changes our breathing in ways that can reduce stress, stimulate the immune response, release feel-good endorphins, enhance memory, build lung capacity, reduce snoring, and on top of all that, make us feel part of something wonderful.
“When you sing together with others,” says Healthline, “you’re likely to feel the same kind of camaraderie and bonding that players on sports teams experience.” I’m not doing a lot of team sports these days, so for me, it’s more like being in a crowded stadium at that electrifying moment when your team scores, and you and 10,000 other people leap to your feet, roaring as one.
Raising our voices together enables us to feel the warmth of connection with those around us, however different they might seem at first glance. That’s why it’s so popular at church gatherings, political rallies, birthday parties, and ball parks. Looking at the kids in that bar Thursday night, I clearly recalled how it felt to have that kind of bright-eyed wonder at being grown up enough to drink legally, flirt freely, and sing out loud in public. These are the kind of feel-good moments that remind us why life is worth all the effort it requires of us. I hope every one of those kids left the bar with a song in their heart that would last a lifetime — or at least beyond the next morning’s hangover.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Rich and I are heading off to a family wedding and a round of visits to friends and relatives. so I will not be posting on this blog for a week or two. I'll return with all new stories about America's Nutter culture, dive bars, and modern travel. Stay tuned!
JUST JOINING US? THE NUTTERS' WORLD TOUR SO FAR
IN PROGRESS: THE NUTTERS' TOUR OF CALIFORNIA
Keeping It Strange & Wonderful for Future Generations (Fairfax Festival)
Why Isn't Anyone Banning My Books (Alameda)
When Pigs Fly (Yes, They Can!) (Sacramento Pig Races)
Do You Believe in Magic? (Alameda's Macabre Market)
My Close Encounter with the Skeptic Society (Outer Space)
The Nutters' Guide to Modern Comfort Food (My Kitchen)
Relationships: Do Humans Stand a Ghost of a Chance? (Hangtown)
For Nutters, There's No Place Like California (Petaluma Chicken & Egg Day)
Can Artificial Intelligence Help Me Plan the Next Nutters Tour?
RECENTLY COMPLETED: THE NUTTERS' TOUR OF SPAIN
Spain Never Runs Out of Offbeat Curiosities (Zaragoza, Barcelona, Tarragona)
I Travel Deep into the Heart of Nuttiness (Palencia & Pamplona)
Road Warriors: Let the Good Times Roar (Léon & Oviedo)
Travel Alert: You Can't Always Get What You Want... (Madrid & Burgos)
Gobsmacked at Every Turn but Embracing the Chaos (Jaén & Valdepeñas)
All Aboard for the Nutters Tour of Spain (Packing & Organizing)
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