Four women huddle around a small flat-screen monitor, sharing two microphones as they gleefully fumble their way through a Britney Spears song. One of these women has just been crowned Miss Oregon USA a few weeks earlier but that doesn't stop her from smilingly belting out the pop tune.Every seat in the already cramped bar is occupied, with several others standing on any vacant piece of floor they can find, many still wearing the hats and coats that had shielded from the falling snow and temperatures outside. And not one of these people seems to mind that this Britney Spears song, or almost every other song to be performed before last call, is mostly out of tune.
That's because this is karaoke and it's not really supposed to be in tune. Being out of tune is actually part of the fun of this spectacle, especially at this mind-bogglingly popular karaoke night at Bo Restobar on downtown Bend's Franklin Avenue, just one of the many spots in town that hosts such sing-it-yourself events. Karaoke, once the backroom fare of Asian restaurants, has undergone a renaissance of sorts as bars and clubs opt for this more-affordable option rather than shelling out for a live band.
On this night, the set list includes a number of Sinatra-era tunes, all sung by an almost curiously friendly man named Blaine. He wears his hat - one of those Samuel L. Jackson sort of numbers - backwards and sways in time as he croons along to the jazzy, lounge-ish tunes that seem to fit well in the low lighting. Minutes later, a man in his twenties works his way through Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage" with eyes closed and microphone clutched with both hands. He'll reappear about an hour later to sing The Cars' "Just What I Needed," but in between there's an eclectic explosion featuring songs from no less than four decades by performers nearly as varied in age.
Jackie Johnson, who owns A Fine Note Karaoke Too, oversees this vocal sideshow every Friday and Saturday night at Bo and when things gets slow, she'll jump on the microphone to keep things moving. She also is responsible for keeping the room engaged and at one point on this particularly snowy Saturday night, she hands out percussion instruments to the crowd. This is why when I'm coaxed away from a bar-top debate in which I'm advocating the greatness of present-day Pearl Jam to sing "Me and Bobby McGee," I smack a tambourine against my hip like I'm Stevie effing Nicks, then during the song's "la la la" breakdown, jingle it against my skull. This is more painful and hardly as rock star as I anticipated.
Karaoke came into Johnson's life, as it did for many of us, in the 1980s. Her race-car-driving brother in-law returned from Japan with a karaoke machine and stacks of discs. She was immediately hooked and now, as a professional karaoke host, she's seen nearly every onstage stunt, heard innumerable renditions of the Grease hit "Summer Nights" and has learned that most people don't think they suck at singing.
In fact, some people think they're awesome. You may have already learned this, however, not from karaoke, but from eight years of American Idol.
"With karaoke, the people are virtually entertaining themselves. But every once in a while you have people who take it so seriously and think they should have had a recording contract by now," says Johnson when we speak two weeks later after my Janis Joplin-induced embarrassment has settled.
As the night goes on, the bar grows even more packed as either the happy-hour-all-night drink menu or the shaking tambourine encourages an increasing number of patrons to take the microphone. Before I and many others head out into the snow, an older woman, well not old exactly, but older, makes her way into the corner of the bar that serves as the stage and sings a smoothly jazzy song I've never heard before but can tell predates me. The room grows strangely quiet, aside from the typical barroom clinking and chattering. People are listening, not that they have to, but they do and then applaud when she finishes. It's a gorgeously magic karaoke moment.
But just maybe a minute later that magic disappears - magic, you see, never lasts long in a karaoke bar - when yet another crew of giggling young ladies hares the microphone, yelling out a pop-country tune. And the crowd sings along.