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.