Karaoke as Cheap Therapy (Part 1)
"I think it heals the soul," she whispers, as if a secret.
"I think it does too, Aunt." I reply.
My Aunt Mary Lou and I are on the phone. We're talking about singing instead of addressing her daughter, who is dying of cancer. My aunt needs a break.
"Do you still sing, Bethy?"
(Hearing "Bethy" always warms my heart. It's my child name.)
"Yes, Aunt. I do. I sang with a choir for the last few years. I even sang a solo once."
"Really!" my Aunt Mary Lou exclaims. "Well, isn't that wonderful. How about now?"
"Well, it's kind of...stupid. It's...I just sing karaoke sometimes at the local bar on Long Beach Island."
"That's not stupid, Bethy. That's practice."
I smile, wiping away a wandering tear. My cousin is my age. She had a routine gall bladder surgery and they found cancer. Lots of it. Suddenly, she has weeks to live.
"It is practice, Aunt. I'm not sure for what but..."
"Life. It's practice for life."
Back in the day, my mother and father, my aunts and uncles, would sing all night long, if you let them. That's when people were more full of goodness, it seemed; content with sitting around a kitchen table until the wee hours, connecting, conversing, debating, joking, laughing, singing songs - just being simpler and happier. Before computers. Before cell phones. Before a million TV channels. Before the great disconnect.
[My family sitting around singing in 1971. That's me at 4 singing in the background.]
Occasionally the gang would go out to a local piano bar, sipping the same drink all night and singing until their voices became hoarse whispers the next day. I loved watching the women prepare for their big night out - coral lipstick, bright floral patterns, hairspray...layers and layers of hairspray.
"I am sixteen, going on seventeen," I'd sing. (Although I was 34 going on 35.)
"I enjoy being a girl!" I'd meekly proclaim.
"Louder, with feeling. Sing it out, Bethy!" she'd demand, a Kool cigarette dangling out of her mouth.
"Come on, Aunt, please. I'm not very good."
"What the hell does that matter? Just sing! You're too damn shy."
It doesn't matter, Aunt.
I was going to make sure it never mattered again.
Karaoke as Cheap Therapy (Part 2)
I read a quote once, from Kurt Vonnegut:
Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
Hail to that, Mr. Vonnegut. If there would be one guiding ethos during my years in New Jersey, it was learning to express myself in spite of the end result.
I'm not a great singer. But I love to sing. I've studied voice and music theory and sung in choirs for years. And I’ve always practiced hard. Yet I only felt like an intermediate at best. Blessed with a good ear, I could hear when I sang something wrong…but I couldn’t always change it.That used to eat me up inside.
I wanted to sing 100% well or not at all. My fierce self-loathing would attempt to strangle me before I even opened my mouth. But I kept singing anyway, determined to improve in spite of those inner haters. If I could learn to be all right with the way I sang, maybe, just maybe, I could be more okay with myself. Singing might help me like myself again.
In New York, I was lucky enough to sing with a superb women’s choir. During our concerts, I’d feel transported by the music and the women’s voices. Angels on high, we were. When I left the city, it was one of the few aspects of my NYC life that I genuinely missed.
At the Jersey shore, the outlets for singing are few and far between, if you don’t count your outdoor shower. So with a faint tinge of embarrassment, I found myself at a local grungy bar on karaoke night.
What’s there to say about karaoke that hasn’t already been said? Yes, it can be bloody awful, an insult to real music and occasionally just plain circus-style creepy. This place was no exception.
But desperate times called for desperate measures, so there I was each weekend, gin and tonic in one hand, cheap mic in the other, singing everything from Boston to the Bee Gees, from Loverboy to Led Zeppelin, from the Stones to the White Stripes.
Slowly, I became an integral part of a strange but sweet subculture of wannabe singers that cheered and supported me even when I kinda sucked. The name of the game wasn’t to nail it but to simply try it. A perfection-free zone where I could still sing even if I failed. My internal motto became: Who cares? It’s only karaoke.
As months went by and I became a bit bolder (or drunker?), my singing morphed into performing. I’d allow myself to be taken by a song, by the emotions it brought up. Or I’d dare to dance or act out a song. Who cares? It’s only karaoke.
And if all the stars were aligned, this feeling of sweet transcendence would lift me, simply because I dared to open up my voice and let my soul fly out. It became a strange form of therapy that purged the dark sludge from my soul. I’d go home feeling at peace and charged up by my own magic. (And drunk…I was usually drunk.)
Singing soon became part of my daily life at the Jersey shore. My bedroom turned into my rehearsal studio slash concert hall. Others could hear me sometimes—neighbors, passers-by, etc.—and the self-haters would return. But I wouldn’t let that stop me. I’d sing in the face of self-consciousness, forcing myself to not care what others heard.
Exposing your voice…it's more naked than nudity.
Years ago, a friend pretended to strangle me, as a joke. The moment her hands reached my neck, I suddenly started sobbing, much to her (and my) surprise. That area of the body can be so loaded with emotion. My mom was dying at the time so somehow the tears and anger just got stuck there.
Singing can move it through you. That’s the magic of it.
Over the years, my singing has improved and I’ve even joined a rock band. We kinda suck but oh well. It’s not about perfection but expression. This newfound self-acceptance spilled over into other areas of my life. “It’s only karaoke” became “it’s only life.” Take chances, speak your mind, express yourself, sing to the skies, sing to God, just sing it out, purge it from you.
Create to the best of your abilities.
You may flail and cringe at what you’ve created. You may meet up with crusty old monsters that want to destroy you. But if you allow yourself to “sing” in spite of it all, you just may save your soul. Isn’t that more important than getting it right?
(Leo Sayer, singing the song maybe a little better than me.)
(After the host Gary introduced me to a better mic.)