I really don’t enjoy karaoke. I’m sure it comes from the fact that it had a peak of popularity in North America during my high school years – a time that I don’t often enjoy recollecting!
I started to perform live when I was ten and so all of my classmates knew that I had a “nice voice” and I was often cajoled and dragged and/or berated into singing at various parties and school events. Usually, the songs were cheesy love songs with bad keyboard sounds and wind chimes. Whitney Houston was a favourite, I recall, as was “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers.
When I hear the word “karaoke,” I feel a rush of an ancient mortification being unearthed in my body.
I remember being worried that the pitch would be wrong for my voice or the words hard to see on the screen. I can see my classmates looking at me expectantly and remember feeling impossibly shy without a guitar or my own songs to sing, fearing letting everyone down. . . and then missing the opening line of the song because of all the over-thinking I was doing. I was a typical teenager and typically awkward in those settings.
Eventually, I started to hate karaoke and when I was solicited to sing, I would root my feet firmly where I stood and refuse to go up and sing “other people’s songs” as though this were an affront to my artistry. In all honesty, I was scared to death. I built that whole phoney stance around my fears. I suppose this is a human response, but being here in Beijing has forced me to acknowledge it.
Because really, karaoke isn’t that evil.
The psychological effects of karaoke aside (!), it was inevitable that I would have to face my fears here in China. Singing is very related to partying here. There is often a karaoke option in clubs or restaurants and people are just accustomed to getting up and singing after they’ve enjoyed a meal and had a few drinks. It’s a cultural experience, shall we say.
In fact, when I discuss my DVD with people here, I have to explain that it is not a karaoke DVD. Videos here are most commonly karaoke videos (with the lyrics running across the bottom of the screen) and many homes have microphone attachments to their VCRs so that friends and family can sing along to the videos being played on the screen. It is popular, to say the least.
On Wednesday night, I was invited to a party by my friend Zou Rui. She is a professional singer and she has a beautiful voice and several karaoke DVDs. She truly does have an incredible voice. It’s one of the loveliest voices I have heard in a long time.
She was invited to this party by her teacher, a singing coach, who also works for the government. When I arrived, I noticed that we were two of only five women in a room of over fifty people (not counting the waitresses.) I was the only foreigner and everyone came over to greet me and clinked my glass to say hello (in English) and toast my arrival. I was drinking juice, which was a good thing, because it was regularly being emptied with every greeting; had it been beer, I would have been drunk within twenty minutes!
We then sat down to eat and the food was fantastic. Yet another example of the hot pot, but in this case each person had their own “cook station” which meant that I could be comfortably and independently vegan at this table. I enjoyed every bite but was amazed by the amount of food that was not eaten. So much waste! To compensate, I ate more than my fill and felt grateful to have been invited to join in.
After the meal, the karaoke machine started to hum, the t.v. monitors lit up and Zou Rui got up to start the entertainment. She sang a few songs to everyone’s great delight and mine included. Turns out that she knew she was supposed sing and she encouraged others to get up with her and do various duets of famous Chinese songs. The men at the party didn’t need much encouragement and they lined up to sing with her. She also sang “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton (but made especially famous by Whitney Houston, of course) and I was once again rocketed back to my high school awkwardness.
Right on that cue, she grabbed my elbow and said “lai, lai” (“come, come”) and pulled me up on the stage. The whole place turned to see what this foreign girl would do. Zou Rui had chosen one of the few English songs in the repertoire of titles available and suddenly the opening chords of “Hey Jude” by the Beatles began. She sang the first verse and in the pause, she introduced me to the audience in Chinese as “a very famous singer from Canada” and motioned that I ought to start singing the second verse.
ACK! My throat tightened and I was sure that I was going to vomit right there.
I had the microphone in front of my face but I wasn’t sure what was going to happen when I opened my mouth. Not only was I supposed to sing “Hey Jude” (a song that I don’t know very well – thank goodness for words on the screen!) but now I was supposed to demonstrate my “very famous” singing voice!
I opened my mouth tentatively and, thankfully, the notes came. My body bailed me out. By the first chorus, I was actually smiling and singing at full volume along with Zou Rui. By the second chorus, we were harmonizing. By the end of the song, they were on their feet and cheering.
So karaoke isn’t so bad. I can handle it.
Next time, however, I think I’ll have a drink first!