Get Up and Sing

Karaoke provides a cathartic release and some time in the limelight.

I have a confession to make: About a year ago, I fell in love with karaoke.

Yeah, go ahead—snicker if you want to. A lot of people do. “Really,” one smirking friend said to me recently when I told him about my interest in it. “But it’s so cheesy.”

He was right, of course—to an extent. In some venues, the karaoke is thoroughly campy—so bad, in other words, that it’s actually good. That was my initial experience with it, in fact, during my first visit to Cruzer’s, a full-time karaoke bar deep in the heart of Norfolk’s West Ghent. The instrumental arrangements of many songs often bear little resemblance to the original recordings; the lyrics are projected onto a video screen with random travel videos playing in the background—scenes that have nothing to do with the songs. And many of the singers I’ve encountered there couldn’t carry a tune if their lives depended on it. But that is precisely what makes Cruzer’s fun—people just enjoying themselves without inhibition. They know they can’t sing, and they couldn’t care less.

Not that all of the singers at Cruzer’s are bad. Every so often a man or woman will grab the microphone and blow the crowd away—and that adds an additional dimension: an element of true, soulful beauty in the midst of the general raucousness. More recently, though, I’ve discovered a whole different level of karaoke at Cogan’s, one of Ghent’s most popular bars and restaurants. Unlike Cruzer’s, which has an inexpensive machine operated by the bartender, Cogan’s karaoke night—every Wednesday—is run by Mike Barefield of Klass Act Productions. The name of his company is fitting; Mike himself is a class act, and very professional. He estimates that he has upwards of 40,000 songs in his computer, and all of them are true to the original recordings. Moreover, he’s an expert host—he knows how to engage the crowd and how to encourage anyone and everyone to sing, regardless of how good or bad they might be. “It doesn’t matter if you suck,” he’s fond of saying. “C’mon up here and have a good time.”

“I love people,” says the 52-year-old deejay, who got into the karaoke business after retiring from a job that “bored him to tears ... It’s a joy to see people at their best, having a great time, regardless of whether they can really sing.”

What’s surprising is that so many people there can sing. During the course of half a dozen visits there, I’ve heard many people who sing beautifully—and a few who sound downright professional. One of them is bartender Drew Worden. A skilled musician who is not currently playing gigs because he’s a new father, Worden sings like an angel. He adds to the entertainment value, moreover, by doing so while he’s bartending. Donning sunglasses whenever he sings, he moves behind the bar pouring drinks and picking up empties while belting out tunes with the grace and skill of a professional pop vocalist.

“Drew makes my life so much easier,” says Barefield, “because he always gets the crowd going. It’s very important, in any case,” he adds, “to have the staff behind you.”
But that, of course, is just one element of Cogan’s karaoke night. In the end, it’s all about the customers.

For some, it’s more than fun. Take Michael Shaw, for example. By day, he’s a librarian with the Norfolk Public Library system. By night, he’s a karaoke fanatic—and a crowd favorite, not only at Cogan’s but at New Belmont on Thursdays and Plaza del Sol on Fridays, both of which are also hosted by Barefield. Shaw told me recently that he got into karaoke back in the summer of 2008, after a deejay friend who was hosting a karaoke night at San Antonio Sam’s encouraged him to get up and sing. “I told him, ‘No one wants to hear me sing,’” Shaw recalled. But he did it anyway—and had nothing short of an epiphany. “I was just coming out of some personal crises,” he said, “and I found karaoke so liberating. I could feel my energy flowing to the crowd and the crowd’s energy flowing back to me.”

As he began to sing regularly at various venues, the 50-year-old found himself making new friends—many of them considerably younger. The effect on his psyche, he said, was remarkable. “I think that mentally, I’ve shed about 25 years doing this,” he observes. “It was a catalyst that got me into other activities and led me to meet so many good people,” he said.

I understand Shaw’s point from my own personal experience. One of the nice things about karaoke nights—whether at Cruzer’s, Cogan’s or other venues—is that people of all ages mix together, bound by a love of all kinds of music, laughter and the exhilaration that comes from being in the limelight, if only for a few minutes here and there.

The question is, what to perform? Shaw’s choices are often surprising. Judging by his appearance—he’s white, middle age and unassuming—you might expect him to sing old standards or pop hits from the ’60s. As it happens, he prefers rap. “I don’t want to get up and take some nostalgia trip, singing the Beach Boys or something,” he told me. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I’m the last guy in the world you’d expect to be doing rap; I didn’t grow up listening to it—and that’s what makes it challenging. It’s fast-paced, and you really have to pay attention.” The disconnect between his everyday persona and his choice of material adds to the entertainment value.

For my part, I’m a bit more predictable. My preference is for songs made famous by Frank Sinatra—“The Way You Look Tonight,” and “New York, New York,” among them. I’ve also taken to singing “Sweet Caroline,” because it suits my vocal range, and it’s a guaranteed way to get the crowd involved. Occasionally, I’ll also sing rock tunes, like R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.”

It’s not my only outlet for singing. I play a little guitar and often get together and jam with friends; occasionally, I’ll even sit in on gigs with Lewis McGehee, or play open mic nights. But karaoke fills a different need. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to sing “New York, New York” on stage in front of a big band. Singing it on karaoke night is the closest I’ll ever come to that fantasy.

I don’t know that I’ll ever end up doing it as frequently as Shaw does. But you never know—and that’s the thing; you’ll never know how it might affect you until you try it. With that in mind, I hope to see you out there on the circuit. If so, don’t hesitate to come up and say hi. That, in the end, is what it’s all about.

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