Photos by Paul T. Bradley
As I’ve mentioned before, karaoke is my thing. For people who know me, the first thing they associate me with is karaoke. I have no discernible skills or physical abilities, but I can wail when there are absolutely no stakes.
See, there’s the rub. I’m too afraid to start a band for fear of it being terrible, so I’ve relegated myself to the safe world of karaoke. When my mom called to tell me about a $5000 live band karaoke competition, I viewed it as a bridge. If I won, maybe it would be time to really go for it, and live my frontman dream.
The contest was run by LA’s so-soft-you-might-fall-asleep-and-crash-into-a-bus rock station KOST 103.5 and held at Commerce Casino. Commerce is one of those cities that’s technically in Los Angeles county, but really, no self-respecting Angeleno would ever go there unless they were on their way to Disneyland. It's one of those cities where you go to buy a house and die, or possibly to escape the authorities because, Jesus, not even they want to go to fucking Commerce.
I brought my friend Paul for moral support, as well as a Statler to my Waldorf, for this night was sure to be a viewing experience worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Paul and I arrived to the ballroom late, of course, because (a) I knew I wasn’t first, and (b) I needed a goddamned drink in my hand and wanted to miss as many singers as possible.
We entered what looked like it was supposed to be a showroom, but it was painfully empty. It was, “Learning Annex lecture hosted by the guy you hate the most at work” empty. It was perfect. It was mine.
If I were to ask you to bet on which song would be the first one sung, out of the gate, what would you guess? I’d put the odds at this song being first at around 50/50. Ready? Duh, it was most certainly “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Why did this song come back into the zeitgeist? I don’t know what happened circa 2006-2007 to make us all collectively decide that we needed to implore our fellow Americans to not give up. Was it the Bush Administration? Maybe. Or—follow me on this one—did we predict the global financial collapse of 2008 via only the inexplicable resurgence of this song? Did our collective unconscious know that we were about to face a situation where most of us would, in fact, stop believing? Was our only spiritual recourse to put up a subconscious warning, pinned on the wings of Steve Perry? The world will never know for certain. But I do know that I never need to hear this song again. If you run a karaoke night, please start charging people five dollars to sing this song. You probably don’t get tipped enough, so it’s a plus, and your regulars will not only understand, but cheer.
The lady who sang the song was as forgettable as they come, using the safe, crisp runs of a first round reality show cast-off. I’m already bored of talking about her.
Our host, who we’ll call “Yoked Jillian Reynolds,” was an overly tanned husk. You could tell she used to have a dream, and I guess she makes money doing what she loves, technically? That seems like hell. She is a professional singer, but she is here, with us. Her talents had led her to be forever relegated to wearing a fedora and singing to Tommy Bahama dads at various national-chain bars and regional contests. No Hollywood Bowl for you. Be careful what you wish for.
The judges? This is where it got infuriating: They were two “social media queens” named Britney and Ashley, or Heather and Summer, or some other stock standard millenial names, who we've all seen saying “Hey YouTube, thanks for liking and sharing our new song,” and scoring fucking 70,000 hits for no reason. No other reason, that is, except a giant corporation placed a diet soda in one of their hands and an energy drink in the other one’s hand. It is not daring for me to say fuck these people, but it feels good. Fuck these people. Fuck anyone who thinks turning tweens into diet soda drinking consumer whores so they can get mindless, meaningless “views” on their “What’s In My Bag" video is in any way a contribution. The third judge went to the same dumb acting school I dropped out of, and because he’s been on a billboard, he is its most famous Alum.
It was the second song of the night, and holy shit, both of these people have been way better than I expected. I nervously grasped my second drink. Two singers, two drinks, could I keep up this pace? Gabriel Iglesias over here was straight up killin' "Just A Gigolo." He wailed and rasped his way into my and the judges' hearts. First judgment was from one of our Social Media Strumpets, "You dressed the part!" to which he responded with, "Oh, yeah, I gotta work the blackjack tables after this." Well, fuck me, he already had the blue-collar vote.
To win this, I needed a sob story. Nothing over-the-top, just believable enough. My mom needs better teeth? My cat has PTSD? I want to donate my prize money to tone-deaf kids in Africa? I had to get my story straight, this guy was a true competitor.
"Survivors out there this is for you!" she said, and, yes, of course she sang “I Will Survive.” It would’ve been really weird if she'd said that and then launched into "Rape Me." I can only describe her performance as “Drunk Aunt Going Wild On This Cruise Ship To Make Up For Getting Married Too Early In Life.” During the subsequent mediocrity and disco light show, I felt my confidence return. Maybe it was the third vodka, but I was pretty sure it was my confidence. I had this. I'm a goddamned performer. I was born to do this. I’m the star. It's my big dick, and I say when we roll.
By looks alone, Frank would not win the five grand. However, he would win the trophy for “dude who looks the most like a King of Queens fan.” Frank disturbs the (for some reason) all-ages “crowd” by looking at us and softly yet emphatically declaring “This here? This is the sexiest song in the world.”
Oh really, Frank? I was dying to know what this beef-pillow thought was sexy. I prayed it would be that amazing “AND TWINS” song from those old beer commercials, but I was way off.
You don’t necessarily hear the first note of Chris Isaak’s "Wicked Game," as much as you fucking feel it in whichever part of you gets fucked the most. I had never felt it harder than right then, played by Reno’s own Karaoke Rockstarz. Frank was right. He had picked the sexiest song, and he. was. nailing it. Women in the crowd went nuts. I was lucky they didn't call off that goddamned contest right then and there and declare Frank winner, savior, and hero. Even Paul leaned over to me and whispered, “I love you, dude, but if Frank doesn’t win, I’m gonna kill myself.” Frank, chinbeard and all, was a fucking babe. He looked like a baby but he was a babe.
Time for the intermission, and we needed it. Was I next after the intermission? Nobody knew. I did know I needed both of my hands to drink. I was keeping up my un-asked-for, unnecessary drinking pace. Nerves, man. I asked Paul if he could drive us home. He said yes. He is a trooper. I could’ve driven if I had to, but that would mean I would’ve had to stop drinking immediately and there were at least two more hours of karaoke left. I couldn't do that to myself, so I did it to Paul.
We got back in the “ballroom” in time to hear Yoked Jillian Reynolds yell “How many Guns N Roses fans do we have here?” The answer was very clearly four! The Karaoke Rockstarz guitarist looked a LOT like a sweatier version of that dude from Dinosaur Jr., so I called him Spray Mascis. He played "Sweet Child o' Mine" half a notch slower than Slash, but he also undoubtedly cost less than half of Slash, so he comes out on top, value-wise. Yoked Jillian Reynolds asks us to scream. It was only 9:00 but it felt like forever. Would I ever leave this casino conference/ballroom? Did I want to? Did I deserve to?
I was at least six drinks in, so it became a blur until my song. Within that blur, a second woman sang "I Will Survive," but it was the first camel toe fiesta—her crotch looked like yoga pants being eaten by Pacman; after more than three hours at this casino, I finally saw my first mobility scooter; some girl whose mom probably had a Jim Morrison tattoo sounded like a bad comedian doing an insulting Sarah Silverman impression; and after finishing his song some #swag kid addressed the judges with, "Everybody stepped it up tonight."
Furious, I turned to Paul and scream-whispered, "This isn't a fucking reality show." Paul, compassionate Paul, looked me in the eye and said, “Yes, it is. That is exactly what it is for them.” Oh my god. He was right. This was American fucking Idol for everyone else here. This is the peak. Nowhere to go but down.
At precisely 10:26 PM—I marked it down—it all stopped being fun.
Luckily, I was up next. I pumped myself up, remembering that this actually meant something. I genuinely hoped that I didn’t get too drunk to fuck it all up in the name of protecting my vulnerabilities by shitting on strangers. After all, I was not better than them. I was there too. I did it because I wanted to. I did it for the sincere, unironic joy of singing with a band. Time to PUT THE WHOLE FUCKING ROOM ON MY BACK AND CARRY THEM TO VALHALLA.
I walked out, and they started playing my song: "Nothing Compares 2 U." The thing that people forget about that song is that it’s not written by Sinead. It’s a motherfucking Prince song.
I gave it my all.
I was the only person to powerslide. I knew I was going to powerslide. I was not going to waste perhaps my only opportunity to sing in front of a real band by not fucking powersliding.
Compelled by the feeling of joy from the crowd, I had to join them. I went off the stage, climbing through the empty chairs, reaching out for their hands. If this was it for me, I was gonna go full-Bono.
The song was over. I am not humble at all about the fact that I got a standing ovation. Was it 40 people in a room that usually sits 400? That’s still a standing ovation. The keyboardist shouted that I was amazing over the sound of the cheers. Did it matter that she looked like Roseanne Barr in a K.D. Lang wig and lived in Reno? Not at that fucking moment. I felt it all. I was going to win. I was going to start a band.
The judges were in awe. They told me I was amazing. They told me I was a star, a personality, that I had charisma and talent, and a future. They were right.
They told me that I could make it to the big time. They told me that the big time, of course, meant being a YouTube Star.
I fucking hate their little YouTube world.
Sure, I was drunk, so that had to make it worse, but the crashing, plummeting, comet-killing-the-dinosaurs doom of reality hit me so hard that I laughed. Out loud. A LOT. I laughed like a crazy person. Like, one would assume, a stranded man wandering the desert would laugh when his shimmering waterfall oasis evaporated into more fucking sand.
One of the judges asked me why I was laughing.
“I hate YouTube.”
They were nice, and thanked me, but I knew. We all knew: I didn’t play their game, and no matter how wicked the game is, if you want to win, you have to play.
Frank lost, too.
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