On any night of the week, people can participate in or watch others sing their hearts out in karaoke-related establishments all across the world.
Karaoke in the Pacific Northwest has set the music world abuzz. In January, The New York Times called Portland’s karaoke scene the next great musical revolution. The Times compared karaoke in the City of Bridges to touchstone eras and cities that changed the face of American music—Seattle and its grunge movement in the ‘90s and rock and roll in 1950s Memphis, Tenn.
The article paints a picture of Portland as a karaoke paradise. The amount of karaoke bars in the city and the number of song choices offered between them are supposedly unmatched. There’s also a large market for the pastime. Portland has more bands per capita than any other city, but not enough gigs, so musicians take what they can get. What they can get is a gig singing karaoke.
But does the Portland karaoke phenomenon really crush all of its competing scenes?
Karaoke can be traced back to Kobe, Japan in the early 1970s. Legend holds that a Kobe snack bar gave birth to the style when a booked guitarist cancelled his scheduled performance at the last minute. To keep the customers entertained, the owner of the snack bar prepared and played tapes of only accompaniment and customers enjoyed singing along with the recordings. Japanese businessmen then used karaoke as a way to relax and de-stress after work while drinking with colleagues.
Since then, the trend has escalated and today karaoke machines and karaoke bars are commonplace worldwide.
Portland is not the only town with a karaoke scene impressive enough to gain publicity. There is literature on Seattle’s karaoke culture too.
In 2011, Seattleite Harold Taw wrote “Adventures of the Karaoke King,” which starts out in a run-down Seattle karaoke bar, and follows a down-and-out man who tries to pull his life together and overcome his hardships after winning a local karaoke contest.
Seattle karaoke is a culture within itself. Karaoke bars can be found in practically every neighborhood of the Emerald City. The hobby is offered in many types of non-karaoke bars as well, ranging from country-western bars like The Little Red Hen in Green Lake, Mexican restaurants like Tarasco’s in Ballard, sports bars like The Dock in Fremont and piano bars like Keys on Main in Queen Anne.
People are drawn to karaoke because it asks its fans to break out of their shell, if only for a two to four minute song.
“The vulnerability a person feels when openly singing in front of a room of strangers is exhilarating and empowering,” said Monte Clark, Rock Box’s general manager. “I never used to sing karaoke, now I sing it every day.”
Since the energy and excitement karaoke can bring is dependent on the singer and the crowd’s reactions, the reactions are another reason why karaoke gives singers a rush.
“Karaoke is completely crowd and mood dependent. If there’s a lot of energy, karaoke’s a blast but if there’s not, it can be a downer,” said Alex Peck, a worker at Finn MacCool’s in the University District, which hosts karaoke every Thursday.
Whether you can carry a perfect melody or are tone-deaf, a little liquid courage can help bring out the fun and memories that karaoke can inspire.
“It’s funny because people who would normally never get on stage or in front of a crowd will sing their faces off if they have two beers and some loud drunks egging them on,” Peck said.
There are many karaoke bars where regulars and newcomers alike are accepted.
“It’s a very welcoming scene at the karaoke bars I’ve been to,” said Sarah Howes, a Dante’s karaoke night regular. “Nobody seems to be too judgmental of each other, which is nice.”
Leisure aside, competitive karaoke has been a growing field as well.
“Absolute Karaoke, the company that does karaoke at Dante’s in the University District, put on this big karaoke competition recently, so I think you can definitely say that the karaoke trend is on the rise,” Howes said.
The Seattle Singer’s Showcase 2013 featured hundreds of people from all over Seattle delivering their most impressive karaoke renditions in hopes of competing at the final event on Feb. 2.
“This was the biggest year for the caliber of talent, as well as the overall turn out,” KJ Lymes posted on the Absolute Karaoke website.
Comparing entire karaoke cultures may be too far of a stretch, but one thing’s for sure: karaoke will continue to be an amusing enjoyment, no matter what city or bar the singing happens in.
Ashley may be reached at [email protected]
BUSH GARDEN : THE CLASSIC
614 MAYNARD AVE.
KARAOKE: 9:30 P.M. DAILY
Bush Garden’s interior may be plain—the décor likely hasn’t changed much since its 1953 opening—but that doesn’t affect how busy this place gets on the weekends.
The bar has one giant pull down screen and two televisions that relay the song lyrics, which is a classic set up. The only problem with this layout is that the singers stand in front of the projector screen facing the audience. This makes it hard for people in the back to follow along with the words on the screen, which means that the singer is under a lot of pressure—they better give the crowd a show-stopping performance every time.
The best thing about Bush Garden is that it still flies somewhat under the radar. According to a bartender, half of the attendees for karaoke nights are usually regulars and half are newcomers.
Since Bush Garden is first and foremost a restaurant, the establishment offers the best tasting food of the bunch. And it’s cheap too—the pot stickers, calamari and teriyaki chicken kebabs are all under $6.
CRESCENT LOUNGE : THE ENTERTAINER
1413 OLIVE WAY
KARAOKE: 9 P.M. MONDAY THROUGH THURSDAY,
7 P.M. WEEKENDS
With its seedy ‘70s basement vibe, Crescent Lounge, the smallest of the three bars, should be in the running for Seattle’s divey-est bar.
Each of the karaoke enthusiasts that took the stage didn’t just sing—they put on quite a show. Pouring the strongest drinks of the three bars, the entertaining performances were likely brought on by Crescent Lounge’s potent cocktails, not talent. The prices won’t break the bank either.
With only one songbook stuffed to the brim, Crescent Lounge has the weakest song selection. The lounge’s three most popular songs—Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes—are supposedly sung almost nightly.
Crescent Lounge will be the most enjoyable venue for those who aren’t karaoke connoisseurs. The whole room sings together, so it’s the perfect place to lose your karaoke virginity.
ROCK BOX : THE MODERNIST
1603 NAGLE PLACE
KARAOKE: 4 P.M. DAILY
Rock Box is the most modern and updated karaoke bar of the bunch.
With a bar area and 12 private rooms, the space is much bigger than it looks from the outside. The snazzy interior is meant to resemble wooden boxcars, which is where karaoke was traditionally sung during its infancy in Japan.
Unfortunately, privacy comes at a cost. For the rooms, there’s a $4 to $7 fee depending on the day, time and size of the party.
Rock Box trumps the competition when it comes to song selection and technological features. The rooms are equipped with iPads—remotes for navigating through the bar’s extensive music directories—and a sophisticated sound system that let singers truly showcase their talent (or lack thereof).
The Rock Box menu features appetizers like caprese and spam musubi (priced from $4 to $6.50) as well as specialty cocktails like sake sangria.
Rock Box is the perfect place for big groups and parties and for those who may not want to sing in front of a room of strangers.