The art of karaoke includes singing - or not!

May 8, 2011

Throughout Seattle, on any given night, you can find some place hosting karaoke, which means “empty orchestra” in Japanese.

There’s karaoke in friendly community halls in Greenwood; in swanky clubs on Capitol Hill; in private rooms underneath cutesy bubble tea houses in the I-D.

There’s karaoke-bingo. Karaoke with live bands called Rockeoke. And the Frances Farmer Organ Karaoke Night (more on that later).

But there’s just one Bush Garden, with that 1970s "Hawaii 5-0" vibe. It's so old school some of its songs are actually on laser disc. Also served here: those cheesy karaoke videos.

"Crazy videos. They're made like super cheap. You see 'Ebony and Ivory'.  It's got a white dog with a black guy and a black dog with a white guy. And the two dogs start playing with each other. I mean, you can’t get any better than that."

Karaoke song tips

Harold Taw is a fortysomething karaoke enthusiast. And he's got strong opinions of what makes a good -- or a bad -- karaoke song.

Best song to win over a crowd?  "Love Shack" by the B-52s.

But stay away from "Sweet Child o' Mine" by Guns N Roses.

It’s got all that screaming and "as a general rule, do not choose songs that are over five minutes long with long guitar solos," Taw says.

He's got a special attachment to this bar: it inspired the protagonist in his first novel, "The Adventures of the Karaoke King."

"He was just sitting here with a big row of vodka drinks. Ready to go. Sitting all alone in a booth," Taw says about the sad-looking man awaiting his turn.

Although the funny but dark novel goes way beyond the Seattle karaoke scene, Taw discovered just how mainstream karoke has become while he was travelling around the country researching his book.

"It used to be that when I thought about karaoke I just thought about Asian folks and Asian businesses everywhere. I took a road trip through the Southwest. I would drop by just the most random places to sing karaoke. A casino bar. A bowling alley. A restaurant with pull-tabs. Almost anywhere you go there’s going to be a hard core set of people doing karaoke."

From cheesy karaoke videos to people just doing plain cheesy. With an organ.

But the art of karaoke, at least in Seattle, doesn't necessarily mean actually singing words.

"If you can do a Darth Vader impersonation, if you can whistle, if you can recite the Emergency Broadcasting Test message that’s all on here."

Korby Sears is a karaoke host, aka the “KJ” or, as he calls himself, “the Organ Monkey.”

He's in the Vermillion bar on a day when Sears isn’t working. Which means he can actually talk.

Sears is a composer and sound designer. He used to go out to more traditional karaoke bars. But that bummed him out.

"All the songs, or a lot of the songs, are very depressing. And downbeat. There's always someone who wants to do some ballad that brings the party down. But we're at a bar! And we're drinking! This is a time to have fun, right?!"

So when he got an organ for free, from the Knights of Columbus, he started doing happy organ happy hours.

"Which is nice because how many organ nights are there in Seattle, anywhere right?"

And then he thought: karaoke! But with a twist.

"The Frances Farmer thing I was thinking about. I thought that would be great. A title. 'Frances Farmer Organ Karoke.' Because right off the bat you have to ask, whoa?!"

Farmer was an actress in 1930s who grew up in West Seattle. She was institutionalized at Western State Hospital where she was rumored to have had a lobotomy.

Sears has always been fascinated with her story. Suddenly, he had his karaoke brainstorm.

"I wanted the song list to be a thing where we lobotomize the depressing stuff. And it was all manic stuff that was left. That’s it. So I have a 'No Ballads' policy. Nothing down and nothing depressing. It's all fun. Up! Up! Up!"

Everyone can find something doable on the Frances Farmer Organ Karaoke Night “song list," which actually goes beyond songs. Dance the Charleston. Whistle "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" theme.

"The cantina-band thing from 'Star Wars.'"

Do-do-do-do-do.

"There’s something you can do. You don’t even have to sing well. So people come up and they realize there’s just an air of permission to go nuts."

Which is what the crowd did on the most recent karaoke night. One by one, for three minutes or so, in front of a rubber ducky shower curtain, they were stars.