'Yes sir, I can boogie...'
By day they're pop stars and models; by night they're crooning along to karaoke. LUCY JONES on New York's hottest night out
Sunday 05 December 1999
But this is far from an exclusive celebrity hang-out. We're at a karaoke evening. The host is getting the autocue ready and the crowd is fighting to sing numbers from the B52s, Abba and Prince.
Karaoke in New York has come a long way since its days as a cheesy end to a night out. At the Elbow Room there's not a drunken Japanese businessman in sight. In fact, belting out a few Eighties hits is arguably one of the city's coolest midweek options.
"People really feel like rock stars up there. Instead of going to a bar and talking about the same old stuff or making contacts, you can come here and have fun," says the Elbow Room's Karaoke Nights party planner, Audrey Bernstein.
Jilian Kekligian is certainly in her element performing Zombie by the Cranberries. Lights are flashing and a fan is blowing her long, blond hair. Her rendition is scarily perfect. "You go up there, and the music takes you over. It's such a rush," says Kekligian. "You also get recognition. If you sing here, people come up to you on the street and say: 'Hey, I saw you singing in the Elbow Room'."
The other performers are all similarly polished, suggesting hours of practice in front of bedroom mirrors. A hint of irony creeps in only when someone does Frank Sinatra's My Way (once performed here by Liv Tyler, no less). Such is the seriousness of the acts that Stars in their Eyes seems quite a laugh in comparison.
"People are hungry to express themselves," says Jacqui Malus, a fashion designer, radiant from belting out Last Dance by Donna Summer. "I would never have done this 10 years ago. It just wasn't cool. But I think the celebrities have made it acceptable," she says.
This weekly event usually brings in at least one or two stars. Mark Wahlberg, Julia Ormond, Kevin Spacey, Matt Dillon and the Beastie Boys have all come to watch this parade of karaoke talent. Some celebs have even performed a few numbers themselves.
British stars have been trying out karaoke, too. Robbie Williams and Jamie Theakston reportedly crooned at a party following a screening of trendy British bratpack movie Love, Honour and Obey, in which gang members (Denise Van Outen, Jude Law and Sadie Frost) work their way through a medley of Sixties and Seventies standards around a pub karaoke machine.
But as for New York's non-celebrity karaoke singers, they're made up of New York's go-getters: lawyers, actors, stockbrokers and designers. "It's one of the few things you can do that's not illegal or unhealthy and you can still get a high," says Catherine MacKenzie, a television news producer. "A lot of people in high stress jobs come down here to let off steam."
A one-time professional snowboarder, Bernstein, 34, started Karaoke Nights two years ago. A night club owner was so impressed with a birthday bash she'd held at his venue that he hired her to hold a weekly party there. That led to Mothra, a successful dance party. When asked to organise another event, she wanted something different. "I'd been having a good time with my friends at karaoke bars in Chinatown, so I thought karaoke could be a fun party to do," she says.
Karaoke clubs have sprung up in many of New York's happening neighbourhoods. A TV show, VH1 Karaoke Cabaret, started recently and the first Karaoke Grammy Awards were held in New York earlier this year. Someone called Jeffrey Allen has even written Guide to Karaoke Confidence. However, nothing quite equals the barely contained chaos of Arlene Grocery's punk rock karaoke night on Manhattan's hyper-hip Lower East Side. Here New Yorkers blast out numbers from the Ramones, the Stooges and the Clash, accompanied by a very, very loud band. (The Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK is the punk rock karaoke equivalent of Gloria Gaynor's I will Survive.) There's no word-prompt in this dark, shoebox club; participants have to remember the words or read from a script.
Buck Gordon, a lawyer, dressed in ripped jeans and a red headscarf, puts away his mobile phone and takes the stage to belt out Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns N' Roses. He is totally into it and on the verge of smashing some equipment when the British emcee intervenes to remind him that the microphone costs $200. "You can't hear yourself sing, you can't see anything, it's nerve-racking but great," says Gordon about an hour afterwards, when he's got his hearing back.
"It's an out-of-body-experience," gushes Jessica Hamilton, a writer, after blasting out Talk Dirty to Me by Poison. "You really are a star with your own band up there. It beats going to some posey Soho bar."
"Punk is perfect for karaoke," explains Arlene Grocery's Brummy emcee, Owen Comaskey. "The acts are three minutes long and you don't have to be able to sing. This is about acting out a fantasy of being a punk rock star, not about 'I've got a great voice, so let's show off about it'," he says.
Punk rock karaoke started in Los Angeles, where the original back-up band starred members of Black Flag and the former Minuteman Mike Watt. Comaskey brought the concept to New York this spring, where it took off immediately. "It's 20 years since punk - it's about time it made a comeback," he says.
Performance as entertainment is gaining momentum across the US. These days, you don't pay to see someone else perform - you pay to perform yourself.
Storytelling evenings are becoming increasingly fashionable. The "in" group is The Moth, which meets weekly at various Manhattan locales, drawing a huge crowd like moths to a flame, hence its name. Every meeting has a theme - they've ranged from Change, Scary Weddings to Saloons. Among others, professional writers such as Frank McCourt and Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell have spun their yarns.
In California, improvisation is all the rage. At the Bay Area Theatre Sports in San Francisco, audience members are picked to improvise on a word or a song title, a Broadway musical or tragedy - a hip version of Whose Line is it Anyway?. A panel then judges their performances - it's a sort of thespian Olympics.
By comparison, having a quiet pint down at your local bar seems quite boring. But at least it doesn't require weeks of rehearsal.
WHO SANG WHAT
Off-duty music stars have been at the front of the queue at New York's Elbow Room. Hard rocker David Lee Roth did "California Girls" on his night off. Oz rocker Ben Lee tried "Rocky Mountain High", while his actress girlfriend Clare Danes chose "Material Girl". REM's Michael Stipe relaxed with "Rhinestone Cowboy", but fellow band member Mick Jones preferred "McArthur Park". Hole's Melissa auf der Maur recently duetted "I Get Around" with Rufus Wainright, son of Loudon. Actress Ione Skye sang "Dancing Cheek to Cheek", her brother Donovan Leitch played safe with "You're Sixteen". Liv Tyler belted out "My Way" and Liv Schrieber had a go at Lionel Richie's "Hello". Marisa Tomei teamed up with Space Hog's Anthony Langdon for "Purple Rain". Mick Jones of Foreigner picked one of his own songs, "I Want To Know What Love Is".
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