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Establishing a baseline

Up until this point, karaoke had been but a weekend pastime. Usually, I would go to Durty Nelly's in Costa Mesa on Fridays and then hit Pineapple Hill in Tustin on Saturdays. That's just how much I loved to play the game. But I have to know, is my KJ-DM perspective off base? How many other KJs do what Kevin does? The KJ at Pineapple Hill, Jonah, certainly does a great job, with his impeccable announcer voice and willingness to grease the crowd with a few songs of his own. Is this the norm? What is the norm?

So this week I hit as many karaoke bars as I could, going full bore, seven nights a week, observing and participating, playing the game while evaluating the game. Here are some highlights from this week.

First up, we have Woody's Wharf, a restaurant and bar in Newport Beach. Notable here is both its restaurant status and its posh location right on the docks. Upon arrival, the KJ was setting up the game while restaurant patrons ate on, seemingly oblivious to the magic circle that was about to engulf them. I say that because as soon as the game began, it was clear by the expression on most patron's faces that this was not what they had signed up for. It was a definitive imposition upon their evening and they promptly called for their checks and disappeared.

All except one little family who clearly believed this was exactly what they signed up for. The dad (I assume) practically leapt from his chair, excited to sing a few old tunes I vaguely recognized. The mom (again, I assume) also added in a few songs, again older, more sophisticated fare. Meanwhile their kids attended faithfully, but seemed to have no interest in participating. I joined in too, altering my preferred song list to fit the mood that seemed to be developing. For some reason grunge, my go-to genre, didn't feel right for the evening. So I gave a standard House of the Rising Sun, to signal I was playing, too, and proceeded to watch mom and dad enjoy themselves. After a few rotations, however, they left.

For quite some time I was the only patron, an uncomfortable experience when your goal is social play. Something about playing karaoke alone is unsettling. In some ways it feels like cheating, like somehow I'm cutting the queue, gaining preferential status, as if the KJ and I have some secret agreement that has me placed at the top of the list again and again and again. So I sang a couple songs more fitting to my preference, now that the mood seemed to allow it, and then promptly hid in my booth hoping the evening would pick up.

Eventually, a man in a fedora walked in with a small entourage of individuals all similarly signaling a "something different" about them. He put in his song and the KJ called out something about him being somehow affiliated with some money show on MSNBC and then the fedora man sang an old Frank Sinatra song— quite deftly at that. At the end of his song, he plugged his appearance on said show multiple times before returning to his table. His entourage sang a few songs here and there as well before they all eventually left for the evening. The bits and pieces of their conversation that floated my way seemed to suggest that he was angling for some sort of investment from the girl in the large fluffy coat. Whatever the case may be, I was once again left alone with the KJ.

This KJ was very much not like the other two KJs I have experienced in the OC. He had no introductory pre-game. He spent no time trying to sell the game to the crowd (though crowd size may have effected that, lol). And he had no commentary one way or the other when songs were finished. He took long pauses between songs to setup the next song and left it entirely unclear as to who would be following the current singer. As the night neared its end I discovered that he was a substitute KJ, filling in for a friend who normally runs the show. So though his performance wasn't anything resembling the two other KJs I've seen, it was an illuminating look into the value of their performances versus simply playing at being DJ rather than KJ.

The following evening I attended a game at Forest Lanes in Lake Forest. This location was interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the KJ was female, my first encounter with a female KJ in all the years I've played. And second, the game was held within the lounge of a bowling alley. This struck me as wonderfully silly. The entirety of a bowling alley is a play place, a giant magic circle filled with family fun for everyone. And tucked away in a corner of the alley was a quarantined lounge full of liquor and billiards, and even a little smoking hutch attached to the outside that had multiple little vent windows to clear away the clouds of smoke. And in this space of vice we had a game of karaoke.

The KJ, though seemingly not as experience as my first two, had her own sense of bashful play that she added to the game. She had no real pregame to amp the crowd, but she quite adorable as the players performed, singing and dancing along with them at her booth as if utterly compelled and transported by the music. Though she seemed quite shy, she was nonetheless unabashed when it came to offering praise to the players. She also had her own bit of flourish, which turned out to serve a functional purpose: she bedazzled her mics in hopes that people might respect them a bit more and treat them with kindness.

There seem to be very few explicit rules in karaoke. Mostly they seem to be limited to how to sign up and how to look up songs. However, proper treatment of the mics have been mentioned by a few KJs along the way. Some very pointedly admonish the crowd ahead of time for any attempted mic drops, while others simply make a mild statement about how to properly place the microphone back in its stand. This was the first time I had seen a KJ take a preventative maintenance approach to mic management by devising a human behavior approach. If they like the mic, or at least take notice of it as being somehow "special" maybe, just maybe, they'll treat it as such. Clever.

Otherwise, the only other event of note was running across a player I had seen perform at Pineapple Hill. We immediately recognized each other, though neither of us could remember each others' names, and promptly formally introduced ourselves. What followed was an interesting performance of sorts that I had noticed occur between myself, and other "regulars," as well as regulars toward other regulars, in which our brief mutual association through repeated karaoke games suggested some sort of fidelity of kindred spirits. Suddenly, we seemed to be required by some unspoken social contract to listen more attentively, to wait to go to the bathroom until the other has performed, and to go out of our way to praise the others' performance, regardless of how good it was. And, when it was time for one of us to go, we felt compelled to offer our goodbyes.

Strange creatures, humans.

The very next evening I attended a game at Ozzie's Sports Bar & Lounge in Fountain Valley. Like the game held a Forest Lanes, Ozzie's karaoke was housed in a lounge sequestered away from the rest of a bowling alley called Fountain Bowl. Once again, we had play within play wherein karaoke was placed in the vice point, with the alcohol. This space also had direct access to the outside, a space seemingly provided to smokers for easy in and out access that didn't require wandering through the bowling alley.

The KJ here, one Anthony Pulcini, was clearly an experienced KJ. He began with a clear pregame announcement, encouraging participation while explaining the signup rules, and then moved swiftly into a group song, for which he handed out mics throughout the audience, a novel approach. He also seemed to have some technological advantages that the other KJs lacked, namely the ability to manipulate the stage lights. And he would use them to full effect. Along with encouraging group participation, Anthony also facilitated play with play of his own, ringing a little call bell every time someone performed particularly well, or when they did some mid-song that he seemed to enjoy, and he had a clear rapport built among his regulars, whom he had no qualms teasing or goading into coming up for another song when the queue grew thin. His big move, though, several times throughout the evening, was to encourage group participation through group songs and prompting players to dance along with the music. In fact, their in-house advertising called the game a "dance party" though few actually got up and danced aside from the bar patrons who didn't seem very interested in singing.

Of note, this was the second location I had seen the staff participate in karaoke. Not only did they participate in the group songs, but one of the bar tenders got up and sang a song at a few different points during the evening, despite the bar being relatively full with customers. I'm sure the bar patrons found this frustrating, but personally I thought it was a good move by the bartender. Nothing says advocating for your business's entertainment like participating in it.

By the end of the week, after yet another visit to Durty Nelly's on Friday and Pineapple Hill in Satruday, I went to Marty's Bar and Grill in Tustin, just down the road from Pineapple Hill. This was your classic dive bar. And my first encounter with a child performer.

In California, the law restricts minors from entering a bar unless that bar is also a restaurant. But minors are only allowed in the bar so long as the restaurant portion is open. Once the kitchen closes, the minor must leave. After several performers, the child got up and sang a Disney song. The small crowd became quite suddenly alive. Somewhere, once again, we hit upon some implicit social rule that transposed into karaoke: children deserve extra encouragement. So as the child walked to the stage, the crowd cheered and hollered words of encouragement, offering "woo" and "ow!" throughout the performance. Once complete, as the child walked off the stage, the crowd erupted in rapturous applause and the child walked away as if the most important person in the room.

Strange creatures, humans.

The game here played a bit differently than at other locations. The KJ happily used youtube versions of songs when he couldn't find it within his software, and never used "bumper music," the name KJs seem to give to filler music between performances. Instead, a performance would end and be met with deafening silence as the KJ negotiated the next song. And indeed, it was often a negotiation. He would commonly pull the singer over and check that he had chosen the correct song. None of this seemed to bother the crowd, however. They all seemed to be regulars, used to this alteration of play, and besides, he was an affable with a great singing voice who happily joined in to assist you when needed. Many of the players requested that he sing duets with them, or provide harmony for their song. In talking with him, he had once been a professional singer long ago and fell into karaoke through associations within the music community.

This seemed to be common among the KJs. Kevin had been in a band, Jonah is an actor on the side, Anthony was also involved in the music/entertainment industry in some capacity, and now we have Marty's KJ who sang professionally. Each had gotten into karaoke because of a music friend who knew a friend or a place or a setup. Each had gotten the job because of some tangential knowledge that seemed relevant to using the karaoke equipment.

Aside from all of that, the most interesting elements to this game of karaoke was the taped microphone and the table of props located near the back of the stage. The mic was interesting because of other KJs warnings about mic treatment. This mic was wrapped quite tightly with black electrical tape, secured completely to its mic stand. This may have been an attempt to manage behavior, or it might simply have been a way to ensure the mic would stay on a broken stand. I didn't ask. I simply used the unaffixed mic. And then there was the prop table, loaded with wigs, hats, swords and scepters, boas and ties, and all sorts of strange items. Initially I thought it a strange addition to the game that was unlikely to garner much appeal, but indeed, the drunker the players got, the more they incorporated props into their performances.

Well played Mr. KJ. Play on, costumed players.

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