Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Different Animal

It had been two days since I deplaned at the Eastern Iowa Airport, but it seemed longer. It had been a dizzying time spent doing errands in cars that drive on the opposite side of the street, make right turns on red, and don’t stop at railroad crossings unless the lights are flashing. My sister, Mandi, had been talking about a new karaoke bar she liked to go to that was small with few customers, so she and her friends could sing as much as they wanted. As we pulled up to the little bar by the carwash, Mandi assured me that the people were friendly and it wasn’t an intimidating environment at all. As soon as we walked through the door, my body tensed as the patrons (who were more numerous than I expected) turned to look at us. I felt immediately out of place, among these people who were so much bigger and louder than I was used to, many of them with tattoos and some even with mullets. This was no place to sing ABBA.

“I’m scared, Mandi, I’m scared, oh my god,” I said under my breath.

“Why?” she asked, and she genuinely didn’t know. I’d been away from Iowa bars for too long, I guess.

I insisted we go straight to the bar. Mandi ordered vodka cranberry, and I hesitated momentarily to stop myself from blurting out nama or the translation, raw beer. I found the right words and ordered an Amber Bock from the tap. Then the woman asked us, “Mug or shell?”

Mandi and I both looked at each other and repeated, “Shell?” The bartender looked at us suspiciously and showed us an example of a shell, which was just a regular glass as opposed to a frosty mug. I opted for the mug, and she asked to see our IDs. Mandi produced hers quickly and I fumbled through my wallet to find that only my Japanese driver’s license was immediately available. I searched through the different pockets and compartments of my wallet, thumbing through my expired Japanese insurance card, membership cards to various Japanese establishments, and more relevant cards I hadn’t thought of in years. My face became hot as the third full minute of me rooting around my purse and wallet passed, and I considered that I might not actually have my American driver’s license. I finally found it in a hidden pocket, and triumphantly showed the bartender. Who studied it for a really long time. Then showed it to another woman sitting at the bar to evaluate. Eventually, my perfectly normal ID passed the test, because they gave me my beer. Obviously, it had been a long time since I’d been carded.

My embarrassment over the ID incident quickly gave way to giddiness when I realized my beer only cost $2.25! In Japan, they always cost five dollars or more. Later I bought a PITCHER for five dollars and I nearly exploded. When even premium draught beer is so cheap, I don’t understand why literally everyone in the bar with beer was drinking bottles of Bud Light. Bottles are more expensive and not as good as from the tap. It must be an American example of groupthink.

Anyway, there were a few people singing, mostly the DJs, I learned. But we got a few drinks in us and looked for a karaoke book, which turned out to be the karaoke book, because there was only one for the entire bar. We retrieved it from a table of butch lesbians and flipped through. A couple of Mandi’s friends joined us, but they didn’t want to sing. I think karaoke in Japan is best done while drunk with a small to medium sized group of friends. They should be musically compatible with you—similar taste but not completely the same because you need diversity to keep things interesting. There are variables that can affect the experience. For example, someone who really likes Creed can set a strange vibe. Along similar lines, if I’m karaoke-ing with someone I just met or don’t know very well, I try to be supportive of their song choices and act like I’m listening and enjoying their turns even if I actually think they have horrible taste. If you’re with a group that’s too big, everyone fights over the limited remotes to enter their songs, you have to wait forever for your one song to come up, and generally everyone is either waiting for their song or focusing on entering one rather than listening to the people singing. Some people are karaoke selfish, and enter a ton of their own songs while less assertive members of the party barely get to sing at all. There are many things that can set a karaoke session on a good or bad course, but the thing about Japanese karaoke is that it’s hardly about performance. It’s more about nostalgia and identification, as everyone in the room may end up singing over the person with the mike if a good song comes up. Sure, people still judge you if you’re amazing or terrible, but when you’re with mostly friends, the stakes are pretty low. If the heart of karaoke is nostalgia, it’s important for the majority of the group to be nostalgic about the same songs.

Back at the American karaoke bar, people were singing mostly a mix of country and classic rock, and I found myself bobbing my head and pretending to listen in order to appear supportive of the singers. I often either didn’t like or didn’t know the songs (especially if it was country), but it was my Japanese karaoke etiquette taking over. Eventually I loosened up and stopped feeling the need to pay attention to strangers’ songs if more pressing things came up involving getting more drinks or talking to people at my own table. The fact that three people were completely monopolizing the queue was a big help, though. I leaned in and told Mandi that those people were singing way more than was good etiquette even for a medium karaoke room in Japan, let alone a whole bar. When she finally made it through the queue of song-hogs, Mandi sang some of her old standards, or number 18s if you want to be Japanese about it. I gave the DJ my fake name, Margot, and for some reason I chose the vocally challenging “Take on Me”. I didn’t totally bomb it, but apparently the crowd wasn’t that into ‘80s synthpop. Oh well.

At one point, a guy used the instrumental break of one of his songs as an opportunity to shout “Fuck Bush!” into the microphone, which was met with cheers and raised Bud Lights from the crowd. Things have really changed in America since I was here last. Anyway, one good thing about karaoke in America is that there’s a much better selection of English language songs, including Bizmarkie’s “Just a Friend”, which I sang after a lot of liquor. Even if American karaoke involves more performance and judgment, the nostalgia and identification element is still huge. The final song should be something that everyone can get into, so back in Japan we often chose something like “Come on Eileen” or “Bohemian Rhapsody”. The DJs chose the scream-rock song “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor”. They got on top of the bar and made a big performance of it, while other bar-goers enthusiastically pumped their fists with them. And once again I felt so alienated.


Blogger Eileen said...

They know Come on Eileen in Japan?

Also, Just a Friend is an AWESOME karaoke song, although now it always makes me think of the episode in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Dee and Dennis go on unemployment and then get hooked on crack. If you don't watch that show that means nothing to you and I've wasted your comment space.

10:43 AM  
Blogger archipelagic said...

Come on Eileen is in pretty much every karaoke catalogue in Japan, but actually most Japanese people don't know it. I was actually talking about groups of mainly foreigners and Japanese friends of foreigners that choose Come on Eileen for the finishing song. And I have watched It's Always Sunny and I know what you're talking about and I thought that was awesome.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

Yeah, America is weird. And did you notice one of the pics I sent you was those guys singing the bodies hit the floor thing? DJ Froto was such a tool. I think I missed the "fuck bush" thing but sounds like something you'd hear in that bar. Strange. I worked today and my shift leader switched which unit I'm on. Now I have to deal with an evil 8 year old who throws things, hates women and says while laughing, "My mom's in prison." Fun. TELL GENENCOR I SAY HI AND HE CAN COME LIVE WITH ME IF HE WANTS!!!

1:29 PM  
Blogger GLE said...

The first night we did Karaoke in Japan I was a little heart broken. Singing in a little room with a few people didn't seem like any fun. Also, being able to sing as many songs as you wanted seemed to to make the time you finally get up to sing less fun. For me Karaoke is the most fun when there's some element of humiliation and chance to impress someone. I guess I'm just an exhibitionist. By the end of my trip I really appreciated Japanese style Karaoke. The night we were in that motel type place was lots of fun.

6:21 AM  

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