Camille Reyes

Karaoke Ninjas and Radioheads

In Culture, Music on December 17, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I am a karaoke ninja. Well, maybe the ninja who knocks off several roof tiles as she jumps Crouching Tiger style from doll house to doll house. Karaoke is hard, and I love it. What makes it most difficult are my years of vocal training. You’d think this would be a plus, but it is a completely different genre of singing, almost a different category altogether. Think of Mariah Carey (damn fine voice-forget the terrible material) trying to act. Guh.

So yes, sometimes I have Glitter moments on the tiny stage with the ten cent mic and a crowd full of talkers. So what if I chose a weepy ballad! Song choice is half the battle though. I like songs with string sections, piano, and introspective lyrics like some awesome love child between Samuel Barber, Tori Amos, and Ani Difranco. These don’t tend to go over well in a bar. Case of You. Silent All These Years. Breathe Me.

I need to study the karaoke stylings of my best friend. She has no training, and a Big Gulp heart. She always picks crowd pleasers like 4NonBlondes’ What’s Going On? or Jet’s Are You Gonna Be My Girl? Her voice cracks ever so perfectly on the latter. Everyone wants to go home with her. She owns the stage.

The best friend and Gordita singing a crowd pleaser.

But no, I keep choosing my obscure little ditties, wondering what key I’m going to get, hoping I forget anyone is watching. Even though I always have my birthday party at a karaoke bar, it is almost too performative for me. Singing for me is in many respects a solitary pursuit. This made my old stage and professional gigs a bit problematic. I still remember people lining up to thank me for my brief run as Annie in my high school musical. Although I would have never said this out loud, my interior monologue was: You’re welcome, but I didn’t do it for you.

One exception to this was my brief stint as a strolling opera singer and hostess at a Tampa Macaroni Grill. I sang arias for tips in a white button down shirt, black apron that was too long for me, and a pink tie I borrowed from my dad (and never gave back). I also had trouble carrying all the silverware and menus to the table. Aside from the Puccini, it was one big mess. I needed the money. I digress.

I inhabit songs, and they inhabit me. Occasionally I surface from this special communion to acknowledge the crowd, get them involved. This might seem theatrical, and it is, but it is also selfless. I’d rather be alone, but I enjoy watching other people so much, it seems unfair to hide completely. My favorite song at karaoke as of late oddly speaks to this strange tension–the tension between adoring, wanting to be adored, and being alone. It’s Radiohead’s Creep. Now those of you who know me are probably already laughing because I look like a cute leprechaun–creepy in a horror movie, but not when you are a petite ginger. The juxtaposition of my physical appearance with the lyrics is comedic at first. But, like the use of a girls’ choir on the same song to promote The Social Network (the trailer is genius, and better than the movie), once you get past the oddity, a strange empathy emerges–at least, that’s my hope when I sing the song, for you and for me.  Here’s the chorus:

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here

With apologies to Tom Robbins, “even cowgirls get the blues.” Clearly, I need more therapy. But I hope that when someone experiences my version of this song, they think, well, if she feels that way, then maybe I’m not alone.

The first verse of the song sums up the near universal feeling of not measuring up to someone you’ve placed on a pedestal. (This lyric would be the micro-blogging leitmotif of my love life with one exception, not to be discussed.)

When you were here before
Couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel
Your skin makes me cry
You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
I wish I was special
You’re so fucking special

I like to really stick the word “fucking” when I sing it–again for the jarring juxtaposition (nice girls don’t say “fuck”), and because the near repeat of the line immediately before is not lazy lyricism. The subtlety is important. I read the line as a 1 part jealousy, 2 parts fatigue and 1 part kernel of motivation to move the fuck on. I try to capture this interpretation in song–not easy to do. I am almost to the best part of the song though, the bridge and the climax:

She’s running out the door
She’s running out
She runs runs runs

This is heartache in three lines. The first time I sang it (on acoustic night at the best karaoke bar in the universe, Baby Grand in SoHo), I achieved near transcendence. Playing with a live guitarist gave me the freedom to stretch it out even more than Thom Yorke does. The audience felt my anguish, knew I was somewhere else, and went nuts. Their cheering brought me back to earth, and for once, I was grateful to them.

Lyrics: Radiohead, Creep (1992)

Bonus: the girls’ choir version without the trailer.

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