Karaoke queens get vocal down at the local

Pipe down, drunken lads. Annalisa Barbieri finds women taking centre stage in Britain's pubs
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Val Hamer was going to be a vicar. She still might be one day. For the moment, however, she is a criminologist and sociologist. Next week she will present a paper to the British Sociological Association entitled "Getting Vocal Down Your Local". It is about karaoke and how it has enabled women to go to the pub on their own, given them more confidence and "empowered" them generally.

This may be difficult to accept, at first, given karaoke's image of drunken lads showing off and singing along to "Achy Breaky Heart" or "Wild Thing".

"There is a fascinating history of women in pubs," Ms Hamer, 33, explains. "For a long time there have been connotations of sexuality - they were there to service men, either to serve drinks or as prostitutes. Women who went to pubs without men were deemed sexually available and harassed. I'm finding in my research that women will go into pubs on their own if there's karaoke there."

Ms Hamer lives in Stockton-on-Tees. Her research, so far, covers a dozen local pubs. She first noticed karaoke's beneficial effect because it happened to her. "I would like to think I am a liberated woman. But I wouldn't have gone into a pub on my own. And, when women do, they tend to take props with them - newspapers or magazines. But karaoke is so friendly you can go into a strange place and talk to people without people thinking you are on the pull.

"Women have developed strategies to avoid harassment in pubs, by going to gay bars, women-friendly pubs or going in groups. With karaoke they don't need to do that. It's a legitimate use of pub space; you're doing something. You're active."

Ms Hamer took me to Lord's Tavern in Stockton, where someone called Karaoke Joe is in charge of proceedings ("There's no such thing as a toilet in karaoke" he says when one singer is called to the stage and is found missing. "You say 'he's in the dressing room putting on his make-up'.") There are hundreds of sing-along options in the "menu" that he hands out, but some women have brought along their own karaoke CDs (which cost about pounds 30) to make absolutely sure of having their favourite tracks on hand.

The first things that strikes one is the standard of singing. It is very high indeed. It isn't all women, either; that isn't the point. People are very happy, very smart and rather welcoming. Goodness.

"I would never have gone to a pub on my own before," beams Julia, 56. "I was brought up to believe that ladies didn't go to pubs and definitely not unaccompanied." Now Julia goes to pubs on her own four or five times a week. She even drives herself to pubs further afield (something she would never have done before) to attend a particularly good karaoke night. Her diary is crammed with karaoke dates and all the codes to her favourite songs. "Karaoke has given me confidence and I've made great friends. It's a common link between us. A couple of years ago I was very down, going through a divorce. Now I go home feeling good and high as a kite. Who needs a man?"

It is a similar story with Michelle, 58, who has just sung "Cry Me A River". "Before karaoke I would never go to a pub alone. Women sat on their own and were there for one reason only. Now I do what I love to do and I please myself. Karaoke gets a hold of you. It's like a drug."

Julia and Michelle have to bring Tunes cough lozenges with them, because not only do they sing their songs, they sing along to everyone else's too, and they get rather hoarse.

On to Flanagans, where Karen, 35, has been going to karaoke for three years. Does she agree with Ms Hamer's theory? "Absolutely. Before karaoke I'd never have dreamt of going into a pub on my own. It's accepted for a man, but not a woman. Now I could go five days a week. It's given me so much confidence." Her sister-in-law, Carol, 42, nods. "I've only just started going and tonight is the second time I've sung. I was brought up the old-fashioned way, and that was that women didn't go into pubs. I wouldn't, without karaoke. It's added enjoyment to my social life and given me so much freedom, I can go out on my own. Before this I went out once a year. In the last fortnight, I've been out three times. It has opened up a whole new world."

And you thought it was just bad singing. Pass that song list.