The air in Wet Willie's is swampy, ripe with sweat. A rainstorm blew through West Palm Beach a few hours ago, discouraging crowds. Behind the long, open-air bar, fruity pink and green swirls advertise the daiquiris that are the pride of this establishment — concoctions with names like Shock Treatment and Attitude Adjustment.
In a back corner, an elevated stage and two enormous speakers broadcast the talents of a few dedicated karaoke singers. The raised TV screen for the lyrics features a scrolling text announcing the next singer, along with the night's specials on tilapia and shrimp. Because there are so few people here, three guys — Ron, Kosta, and a DJ named Alex Doll — get heavy rotation.
Ron Rabia is a slight 30-year-old in khakis and a collared black shirt, nursing an unspiked Coke and peering frequently at his Smartphone. He has pale skin, dark eyebrows, and black hair shaved close to his head. When he stands onstage, his feet turn out slightly. The theme song from Moonlighting is one of his all-time favorites. He's in his element swaying his hips and crooning George Michael's "Faith," romancing the hand-held microphone.
"He can do anything," says his friend Kosta, who, like many in the karaoke world, declines to give his last name. Ron has a 50-song repertoire but favors cruise-ship-style hits from the '70s and '80s.
By 10 p.m., a few more customers have trickled into the bar. Ron is complimenting a waitress on her tattoo. Then suddenly he's onstage, pouring his heart into "Give Me the Night," a 1980 George Benson R&B standard. Two girls — too young to remember the song — start dancing. They are adorable in gladiator sandals and short shorts that sway as Ron croons. "There's music in the air."
"Ron's got groupies," Kosta observes, shocked.
Habitually shy around women, Ron often has to be prodded into speaking to them. Now, as the next singer takes the stage, Ron asks one of his groupies — a beautiful girl with long, curly, dark hair — to dance. One hand in the small of her back, the other chivalrously resting in her palm, Ron dances exactly the way he sings — slow, like Sinatra.
He's grinning as he returns to his seat.
"What just happened?" he asks, although the answer is obvious.
Karaoke. That's what happened.
On a Sunday summer evening in Lake Worth, the stage at Little Munich is swathed in shadow. This a family-oriented German bar, with occasional live music and a menu with bratwurst and Hefeweizen beer. The lights are bright, and the wooden tabletops gleam. At first blush, it seems too stoic for public warbling. Then a ginger-haired retiree in red gym shorts and wire-framed glasses hops on stage. The drumbeat begins, then the electric guitar.
"Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah," the man chants in an enthusiastic monotone. "Bop bop bop bop bow...When I'm dancin' with my baby, drives me crazy."
It's the 1977 disco hit "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" by Chic. People at a table in the back of the bar begin to clap.
"Dance, dance, dance, dance," the gym shorts guy continues. He's doing the White Man's Neck Groove, a turtle-like bop designed to fill 34 seconds of instrumental interlude.
No one laughs. No one boos. The man, sweating now, bounds offstage to high praise. It's impossible to tell if he bombed or was a wild success. In karaoke, they are sometimes the same thing.
"He meant it," a customer at the back table says approvingly.
Not all karaoke bars are this accepting. But the ones beloved by locals in South Florida tend to share a kumbaya vibe. Everyone willing to risk a few minutes of public humiliation is generally cheered onstage. Hipsters, office clerks, unemployed financial analysts, retirees — all are welcomed into the tribe. The occasional drunk who tries to steal the spotlight or pose as the next Simon Cowell is usually shown the door.
The desire to sing in public is as primal as it is daunting. From call-and-response church hymns to yodeling cowboys, people have been expressing their souls through song since biblical times. In the early 1970s, Japanese drummer Daisuke Inoue played in a band that provided live backup music to businessmen who enjoyed singing the country's traditional tunes in clubs. One night, Inoue made a recording of his accompaniment for a client because he couldn't attend the gig in person. The client was so pleased, Inoue decided to make karaoke — which translates to "empty orchestra" — portable. He rigged up a tape player and amplifier to sell the first coin-operated karaoke machines to Kobe bars in 1971. Anyone with a few yen to spare could become a star.
Soon, people in Asia also had the option of singing karaoke in private clubs. But when exported to America in the late '80s, the performance became more public. The karaoke box evolved to laser discs and cheesy music videos with screens displaying the lyrics, then CDs and stages where patrons could sing and play air guitar and tambourine. By the '90s, people in bars around the world were conjuring the nerve to perform as they flipped through laminated pages filled with Debbie Gibson and Styx tunes.
The advent of American Idol in 2002 breathed new life into the industry. Now, every administrative assistant and cell phone salesman wants to be the next Kelly Clarkson. Karaoke jockeys (KJs) carry laptops with tens of thousands of songs on their hard drives, making the latest Shaggy or Pink hit accessible with the click of a mouse.
Alex Doll, the KJ at Little Munich and Wet Willie's, is tall and perpetually perspiring, with spiked brown hair and a German accent that disappears when he sings. He's been running karaoke shows in Palm Beach County for eight years and now works gigs five nights a week. His mission, spelled out on his Facebook page, is "To make a difference in the karaoke world, and give good karaoke its reputation back."
At Little Munich, which his family owns, Alex often sneaks outside for a smoke while a singer is onstage. But he never leaves until he's adjusted the volume and made sure the customers sound as appealing as they possibly can, regardless of their musical talent. "Doesn't matter how you sound," he says. "[It's] just about having a good time and having four minutes of fame."
A few blocks away at South Shores Tavern, the Friday-night show run by another karaoke company, Frank-E-oke, has the same welcoming vibe. "I never see angry people at karaoke," says Fred, a handsome, tall, 22-year-old with nut-brown skin who delivers a spot-on rendition of "Fuck You" by Cee Lo Green.
Sitting outside at a patio table, wearing a pageboy hat and rolled-up jeans, Fred explains how he enjoys pushing the boundaries of acceptance at this biker bar. He says he brings his white boyfriend to karaoke all the time and never has any trouble. One night, Fred wore a fishnet shirt, a contact lens with an x over the eye, and dreadlocks, daring the audience to question him. But they just let him sing. He's even noticed homeless people come in and perform, and the crowd doesn't blink. "Inside, everyone's pretty much just one, big karaoke family," he says. Then he excuses himself to go sing "Under the Sea," from The Little Mermaid.
Back at Little Munich, David Shields is downing beers as he cheers the "Dance, Dance, Dance" performance. A musician who fronted bands for years, Shields admits karaoke is "the least rock 'n' roll thing I can think of." Yet he loves it. "It's not about public humiliation at all," he says."You never know who's gonna get up and rule — or not rule — in their own special way.
"It's a strange beauty," he says. "It's fucking awesome."
Hopping off the stage at Little Munich, the "Dance, Dance, Dance" performer beelines straight for his solitary seat at the bar. Keeping an eye on the baseball game flashing on the TV screen, he picks up his book, American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, and ignores the other patrons.
This is Lee, a retired firefighter with pale, freckled skin. He sings karaoke five nights a week and totes around a composition book to keep track of which songs he's performed in each bar. Many regulars know him, but at Little Munich, he sits alone. Karaoke has a knack for attracting intensely introverted people.
If Lee wanted to, he could stay home. Videogames such as Karaoke Revolution and the Karaokini phone app now make it easy to belt out tunes at home in the privacy of one's own living room. Some industry experts say traditional karaoke clubs are losing business due to this new technology and the recession, but tough economic times may be a boon for dive-bar karaoke. Bar owners can shell out $250 for five hours of entertainment that's far less expensive than hiring a live band. "You get a band that knows 72,000 songs," says Frank E., founder of Frank-E-oke.
Meanwhile, sales of karaoke machines and CDs have dropped steeply in the past decade, partly because 10-year-old girls singing in their bedrooms are no longer the target market and partly because of the widespread illegal downloads of karaoke music. In South Florida, longtime KJs who invested $35,000 to $60,000 in their music bemoan competitors who buy a $400 pirated hard drive full of thousands of songs. For the companies that record karaoke music, such piracy has been near-fatal. Yet the file-sharing technology has also helped make karaoke more ubiquitous in ordinary bars. "That has grown in popularity over the years," says Tom Viveiros, cofounder of the Karaoke Industry Alliance of America. "The problem is that nobody's paying for it."
Every night in South Florida, there's a free show somewhere. From the Palm Beach Ale House in West Palm Beach to Bill's Filling Station in Wilton Manors, the crowds flock in. Some patrons build their social lives around karaoke, making friends, meeting mates. "People are just happy and singing," Lee explains at Little Munich. "Just look around. You can see it."
In the past decade, Frank E. says he's seen plenty of couples meet at karaoke, hook up, and "make little baby karaoke" singers. Fans follow their favorite KJs from one watering hole to the next, bonding with whoever shows up to sing. That's how friends Ron and Kosta met; Ron sings five nights a week. "They have no other life," Kosta says of his karaoke buddies.
But the truth is more complicated. Each dedicated fan has his or her own reasons for showing up — whether it's about conquering fear, slipping into a different personality, or escaping reality.
One warm Friday night, a sweet-faced 22-year-old with long blond hair can be found staking out a table at South Shores. Jessi appears to be perfect American Idol material, wearing geek-chic glasses and a body-hugging dress. When she gets up to sing "Don't Stop Believin' " — the Journey song that has become a karaoke anthem — her voice soars. Yet she keeps her eyes glued to the video screen where the lyrics scroll. Her mom holds a camera to capture the moment.
"I'm very shy, and the only way I can come out of my shell is by singing," Jessi explains. The Lantana resident has auditioned for Idol in the past, but she never got her big break. "I would love to do it professionally, but the chances..." she trails off. "And I'm a realist."
Now, she attends pharmacy school at Palm Beach State College and saves her starlet moments for karaoke. "Everyone always seems so excited and proud when you're up there," she gushes.
A few blocks west at Little Munich, Frank (no relation to the KJ) attends karaoke religiously every Sunday. A Santa Claus-sized character full of chatter and good spirits, he has wire-framed glasses, gray flecks in his beard, and a belly that hangs over his gym shorts. By day, Frank sells power for Florida Power & Light. At night, he brings down the house at Little Munich with his rendition of "Mr. Cellophane," a musical-theater ballad about a man who believes he's invisible to the rest of the world.
"When I was a kid, my own mother told me I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket," Frank says cheerfully.
Then he learned to play saxophone, bass, and clarinet. He performed with wind ensembles and jazz bands and practiced charming an audience. Now, Little Munich is a second home for him. He grabs the mic and sings Tony Bennett-style, sauntering between tables at the bar. When he's not performing, he carries a bowl of ice cream with him as he chats with friends at other tables.
Frank can recite the weekly schedule for karaoke in Palm Beach County. One recent Sunday, he sang in two bars.
Does he sing every night?
"When I'm not working," he says.
Ask a karaoke fan about his day job and the response is often brief. There's a roof salesman, an administrative assistant, an architect. Some are unemployed. Some would rather not discuss it. For many regulars, karaoke is an escape from the rest of their lives. The anonymity of performing under a stage name is part of what makes it so appealing. So is the chance to reinvent themselves, to be bolder, brassier, more attractive. Fred works at his dad's cell phone company — a banal detail that's easy to forget about during his performances at South Shores. "Karaoke, you get to leave all that behind," he says.
But when the music dies and the stage lights dim, reality sets in.
Most nights, when he leaves the karaoke stage, Ron drives to a low-budget hotel in West Palm Beach. He asked not to have it named, to protect his job. He has to be at work by midnight.
In the lobby, bright fluorescent lights glare on pleather armchairs decorated in a floral pattern. It's so quiet, you can hear the ice machine in the next room burbling, imitating the fountains that decorate fancier establishments. A security camera in the corner eyes guests as they arrive.
Ron is stationed behind the front desk. He has swapped his black T-shirt for a navy-blue uniform with a garish red logo on the front. "One bed, two beds?" he asks a guest. "You need a wake-up call?"
Ron is the hotel's overnight auditor, responsible for checking in customers and doing paperwork. "It's quiet," he says. "There's no pressure."
For now, this is his version of the American dream. Nine years ago, Ron moved to West Palm Beach from his hometown of Tel Aviv. He had served three years in the Israeli army but was confined to a warehouse where the work was so boring, he won't discuss it. America, by contrast, seemed fascinating. "I feel really free here," he says.
Ron didn't sing in Israel. Tel Aviv doesn't have much of a karaoke scene, and if he had performed, "they wouldn't appreciate it," he says.
In America, the immigrant experience isn't as glamorous as he'd pictured. But he sings five nights a week, has made friends with the regular singers, and has discovered a new identity as a performer. Before karaoke, he had no idea people might appreciate his talents.
"I didn't know this about myself," he says. "I knew I loved music... but I didn't know I could sing."
Now, he has settled into a routine. He gets off work at 8 a.m., sleeps until 4 p.m., attends college classes or rehearses his music — depending on the day — then heads to karaoke.
Looking ahead, Ron knows he has choices. He could stay here, behind the desk at the hotel — safe, comfortable, counting the hours until he gets to sing again. Or he could chase his new dream. He wants be a professional musician.
Allan, a 79-year-old resident of Century Village who is a fixture on the Palm Beach County karaoke scene, knows that choice well. Wiry and fearless, with wild puffs of hair and a beard he dyes to match his outlandish outfits, Allan says he held a brief chorus part in a Broadway show before joining the Navy.
"I wanted to be a star," he says.
But when Allan returned from the Korean War, his dad insisted he join the family business making shoe leather. Now Allan settles for celebrity of the YouTube variety. He's got several well-viewed videos, including one labeled "Sexy Back by Allan, Sexy Old Man."
Ron is on a different path. About two years ago, he started writing and recording his own songs — smooth, jazz-style ballads that echo his George Michael and Al Jarreau influences. He performs under the name "Mr. Ron" and also sings with an '80s cover band. It's tough to schedule gigs because of his night shift at the hotel, but he had a couple of shows in September, and he's determined to make it work.
Yes, he takes classes for his bachelor's degree in business management, but that's his backup plan. The truth is, he's now so focused on becoming a professional musician that he won't even discuss what happens if his dream fails. "No, I don't think about that," he says firmly.
He has auditioned for gigs on cruise ships, and he's selling his songs on iTunes. Yet he insists he doesn't want to be a star. As night turns into early morning at the hotel, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with questions about his life.
"I'm a very private person," he says.
He doesn't crave fame or paparazzi. The anonymity of a karaoke stage is much more comfortable. His dream is a humble one, something many musicians might ridicule, just as they scoff at karaoke. He'd love to have enough local singing gigs to pay the bills and maybe travel a bit. If a major artists wants to record his original songs, that would be fine with him. "I just want to sing for a living," he says. "If I can do that, I'll be a happy man."
Back at Wet Willie's, the crowd has come alive. Two young girls massacre Rihanna's "Man Down." Their chorus of "rum pa PAH pum, rum pa PAH pum, rum pa PAH pum" seems to go on forever.
Middle-aged men commandeer the microphone to serenade the girls with "Nightshift" by the Commodores and Billy Vera's "At This Moment." People dance, sip daiquiris, laugh, and forget themselves.
At some point, Ron takes the stage and launches into George Michael's "Freedom," one of his karaoke favorites. He clenches one hand into a fist, pulling it toward his chest. He points his other hand in the air, disco style.
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"All we have to do," he sings, "is take these lies and make them true."
His voice is strong and sure, his face earnest, contorted with joy. He disappears in the music, letting it transport him.
"Freedom!" he shouts.
And for tonight, it is true.