Step into Mike Talayna's Jukebox Restaurant on Hampton, and brace yourself for the surreal. The mirrored walls and vivid neon turn the place into an illusory Tron-scape, an infinite catacomb of beer logos and SportsCenter that stretches away in every direction toward an imaginary vanishing point. With its dizzying overdose of cheap glitz, Talayna's Jukebox could be anywhere from Saigon to Kiev -- anywhere people need to step out of the time-clock grind and become stars for a few minutes on a drunken weekend night. And a woman named D'Jai is there to make it happen, armed with her PA system, karaoke discs and big blonde hairdo.
There's a half-full house for this particular Friday-night karaoke session, which in Talayna's modest confines translates to about 50 people. Maybe half are part of a big, raucous birthday celebration, and smaller, scattered groups make up the rest. The singers and their material are as varied as can be. A preppy young white guy provokes groans with his earnest, strained rendition of "American Pie" -- all eight minutes of it. A gaggle of very cute black kids rap their way through "Hot In Herre" to the delight of their mother. "I Fall To Pieces" gets a wavery treatment from a middle-aged lady; a younger woman with a strikingly strong voice -- she's clearly a regular -- takes on several melodramatic ballads over the course of the night. As befits someone based in Imperial, Missouri, D'Jai's repertoire heavily favors country over rock and soul -- she has a dozen Dolly Parton songs and only one by Michael Jackson. But the crowd's eclectic tastes seek out everything from Journey to Sir Mix-A-Lot, from Chumbawamba to Bobby Darin. Even white boys got to shout!
Karaoke probably peaked in St. Louis in the mid-'90s. Effectively killing off what little remained of the professional bar-band tradition, karaoke was a cheaper, simpler alternative that excited patrons and cost-conscious club owners alike. Not only could you hear your favorite Top-40 or classic-rock chestnuts performed live; you could be the one doing the performing. And nobody had to worry about the drummer being too drunk to play.
Originating in Japan about 30 years ago, karaoke ("empty orchestra") has endured the stage of a passing fad and settled in for a long run as an American entertainment staple. Given the polls that show Americans fear nothing more than public speaking, it's probably not for everybody, but karaoke has shown a remarkable ability to lure even the shyest people in front of the spotlights.
There's a sort of social contract at the heart of the karaoke experience. It says, in essence, that in exchange for the customer's beer money, they'll be important participants in the evening's entertainment. With his or her superior stage savvy, the host is there to make this happen, and it's a job that goes beyond simply cueing up the discs and handing off the microphone. First of all, the atmosphere has to feel safe. This means never ridiculing anyone's singing or song choice unless they're a good friend or regular. A little good-natured banter is great for loosening people up, but even then, the host's social radar must be keen enough to avoid hurt feelings. Another big issue is making sure everyone gets a chance. When there's a big party in the house flooding the host with requests, or a contingent of die-hard regulars, this balancing act can be delicate, but those three strangers off in the corner have to get their turn, too.
A good operator can make karaoke seem like such undeniable fun that even the reticent find themselves drawn to the stage. (Alcohol doesn't hurt, either, of course.) The host's job is to gently usher non-performers into a potentially terrifying performance situation, and a smooth one will use humor, flattery and a dash of showbiz to make those fantasies of stardom flicker into reality for three or four minutes at a time. Wallflowers bloom into prima donnas, and sticks-in-the-mud become magically unstuck. Sometimes it feels good to feel a little ridiculous, as the best karaoke hosts remind us.
Then there's the other kind. One local operator, speaking under anonymity, tells of a rival known in whispers as the Karaoke Nazi (no political affiliation implied; it's a reference to Seinfeld's Soup Nazi). Under pressure of a mounting backlog of song requests, this nervous fellow will get huffy with new patrons, snatching their request slips from their hands and tossing them onto the pile with a showy sigh. His small "following" of regulars gets the bulk of stage time, to the detriment of unfamiliar customers. He's even been known to commit the cardinal sin of karaoke hosts, informing the crowd as early as 11 p.m. that no more requests will be accepted or honored. This karaokus interruptus always prompts catcalls and a mass exodus from the club, and no bar manager likes to see that.
At the other end of the spectrum are hosts who are loose and unprepared to the point of comedy. A recent Saturday at Dino's Bungalow in South St. Louis provided a classic example of this sort of mic tease. The duo hosting the evening had no "books" -- the binders listing available songs, a crucial element for all karaoke operators. Running karaoke without books is like running a restaurant without a menu. Worse, when asked if people could inquire about specific songs, they stammered "uhh, probably not" to that, too.
As they frantically scrolled through song info on their single-disc player -- another big faux pas, as no self-respecting operator would leave the house without at least a 60-disc changer -- it became obvious that they, themselves, had no clue what songs they had. Instead of a participatory session of karaoke thrills, the deluded crowd had to settle for hours of these two incompetents singing bad versions of random songs all by themselves. One poor soul even tried to join in on a Rolling Stones tune but had the microphone literally pulled out of his hand by one of the hammy hosts. Somehow these bunco artists call their activities "karaoke" without the Attorney General bringing fraud charges.
D'Jai may not have the stage charisma of the best operators, but she doesn't try to hog the spotlight, singing only the occasional number to get things moving. Best of all, she does a good job of giving everybody a chance to sing without waiting too long. Knowledgeable karaoke heads would probably quibble with some of her discs, though. At about 30 bucks apiece for 60 to 200 discs, the vocal-less, graphics-equipped discs are the biggest expense involved in running a karaoke setup. It's tempting for operators to skimp on discs, buying cheaper low-quality discs whose backing tracks are even cheesier than usual, but karaoke aficionados can tell the difference. One guy complains about her "Mack the Knife" backing track: "She's buying these discs at Kmart."
Some singers actually bring their own discs, featuring their signature tune in the right key for their voice with an arrangement they like. Most operators don't encourage this, because switching discs interrupts the flow of things, but these types tend to be regulars who spend a lot of money and time on karaoke every week. A regular needs to be kept happy, whether it's the skinny, mullet-headed white guy who belts out "Purple Rain" and only "Purple Rain" or the pink-haired hipster chick who pays unironically worshipful tribute to Celine Dion.
Most of the regulars appear to be well-adjusted citizens, but a certain minority element is driven to karaoke by loneliness. The pathos is sometimes hard to see through the good-time haze. One former regular at a South County karaoke bar, whom we'll call Buddy, just seemed like a harmless if annoying eccentric. His signature song was Del Reeves' novelty trucker number "Girl on the Billboard," and his particular quirk was the hand puppet he wore every night. Buddy would employ the puppet in a running dialogue throughout the evening, ordering drinks and hitting on women with it. It wasn't as cute as Buddy thought, but people generally tolerated it and chuckled along. Then Buddy killed himself. The regulars and the hosts realized how little they knew the life of the party. One dirty little secret of karaoke hosts is that they sometimes make clandestine recordings of the more ridiculous singers to laugh at with friends and family. Buddy's hosts had gotten a lot of laughs from a particularly blotto rendition of "Girl on the Billboard," but after his suicide it just sounded creepy and sad.
That's an extreme case. But it's that kind of human drama that makes karaoke so compelling. We're a reserved people, with precious few avenues for public display and observation of emotion. Under cover of the stage lights and a crackling backing track, some of us can say and do things we would never be able to in any other context. People reveal themselves, often in ways they don't intend. And the rest of us can watch! It's enough to make even "American Pie" interesting -- if not quite for the full eight minutes.