Around these parts, they call me Papa Smurf. It’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday, and the Local bar in Chicago’s River North is transforming into what I like to call the “Flanger Zone.” The bartender cuts the music and passes out black binders with sticky laminated pages that crinkle when you leaf through them, thanks to a spilled beer or two. (“At least I hope it’s just beer,” says some guy next to me who looks like a cast member of Jersey Shore. We high-five. I get it.)
The bartender switches two wall-mounted TVs to a video feed that features a photo of a kitten singing into a microphone. “All right everybody, it’s ten o’clock,” announces emcee Steve Archer, “That means it’s time once again for karaoke.”
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I still don’t know what the hell karaoke is. It’s an activity that rewards drunken off-key renditions of cheesy rock ballads with cheers and laughter, while pitch-perfect performances of even the most popular songs can leave listeners bored.
I leaf through the binder full of songs and find what I’m looking for, a little piece of Americana known as “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent. But when a bachelorette party rolls in, I decide on something that doesn’t include the lyrics, “Then I crushed your face.”
It’s time to pander. You can’t go wrong with Tom Petty’s “American Girl” in a situation like this, and I ask Steve to add my song to the growing list. By now he knows to put me down as “Papa Smurf,” my karaoke stage name and what strangers will remember to call me throughout the night, after I’ve hit that final note.
A few songs later, it’s my turn. “Give it up for Papa Smurf!” Steve announces. Sure enough, midway through the song, the bride-to-be and three of her friends join me. Half dancing and half singing, we all get through the song somehow. I get four hugs and tell one of them we’re doing a duet in a little bit. It’s a deal. I return to my seat, where another guy’s been idly leafing through the binder with clearly no intention of singing. I pry the book away and find Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Five minutes later I ask Steve to add me and my new friend to the list.
Besides free refills, there is nothing more American than getting behind a microphone and embarrassing yourself. Politicians and Donald Trump are experts at it. Yet there’s something about singing in front of a room full of strangers that petrifies some people. I know, because I used to be one of them.
If I sat down with the me of ten years ago, not only would it be a miracle of cloning and time-travel technology, but I doubt I’d consider us the same person. “I remember you in high school as someone who kept to himself,” says Sarah Groninger, a classmate I recently ran into for the first time since graduating eight years ago. “You seemed to have a quiet demeanor but a good sense of humor.”
Beyond the acne, token teenage angst, and crippling shyness around girls, I was a smart and happy guy, with parents who supported my interests in writing, comedy, and filmmaking. I was content with being my own best friend.
That all changed when I got to UChicago and joined the Maroon. I don’t really know what drew me to the campus newspaper, but I was addicted. Journalism meant having to talk to people. A lot of people. And it meant being charming to complete strangers who otherwise wouldn’t agree to an interview. So I left social awkwardness and fear of rejection at the door.
Sarah agrees. “Today’s Hassan seems a lot more outgoing, confident, and conversational.”
Since college, I’ve channeled my freewheeling sensibilities into activities like improv comedy, but I still gravitate toward the karaoke floor as my favorite way to unwind.
Why? Well, it’s free. And it’s also one of the best ways to socialize with old friends or make new ones. I don’t often run into people like Julia, the bride’s friend who joined me for that duet. From my experience, hipster-ish girls absolutely hate things like karaoke. It’s about as appealing as a Groupon for prune juice. But Julia proves me wrong: when Steve cues up the Frankie Valli song, she grabs a microphone and pumps one hand in the air. Her entire table of friends starts screaming. The music begins, and we alternate looking intently at each other and glancing back at the lyrics scrolling across the TV screen. We crudely choreograph a dance number during a brief instrumental break and end the song with a move best described as “jazz hands.” We welcome the next singer up to the mic and both grab a seat.
Soon afterward we’re talking about how you can tell a lot about a person by the song they pick. I wonder aloud what different historical figures might have picked to sing. For Abe Lincoln, probably Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” Napoleon would rock TLC’s “Waterfalls.” After a good laugh, I decide to call it an early night, but not before Julia gives me her phone number. Not too bad for an evening of foolishness.
Beyond the social aspect, karaoke also further immortalizes songs and the artists. Jon Bon Jovi can retire today knowing that his legacy is well protected in karaoke bars all over the world. Karaoke also gives one-hit wonders a second life. More important, it allows us average people to be pop stars for two to four minutes, even if it doesn’t come with all the perks of rock and roll.
Of course I have met my fair share of karaoke haters—those who say karaoke is pointless and embarrassing and dumb. Well, those people are idiots. They’re probably vegan and wear toe shoes. And go to business school. Because karaoke is supposed to be embarrassing and dumb. The whole idea is to embrace that cheesiness in a headlock until it cries uncle. It’s part of an attitude that rewards doing something bold instead of sitting on the sidelines. It’s how I now approach everything in life.
All for the small price of your dignity. If you ask me, it’s a bargain.
Hassan S. Ali is a TV and online comedy writer and producer. He likes sandwiches. Stalk him at beyondcereal.com.