Like a trauma victim, I can trace my disdain for karaoke to the memory of a single negative experience. Not long after I turned 21, some friends and I spent a muggy Saturday night hitting every downtown bar we hadn’t yet (legally) patronized.
On the main floor of the Club Cal Neva, we witnessed a particularly grim spectacle—an empty, liquor-stained dance floor wreathed in cigarette smoke and lit by a single disco ball, a small huddle of patrons enthralled by the omnipresent rattle of the slots, and a dazed, heavy-set older woman shuffling arrhythmically to the most sullen dirge of a country song she could croak out.
The vision shook me, and I’ve shied away from most opportunities to potentially emulate her performance. But at West 2nd Street Bar, I often see crowds of bar-goers screaming along to their favorite songs, like the spirit of karaoke didn’t die on the floor of the Cal Neva all those years ago. I decided I could learn something from them.
Daniel Vaughn is the MC, and he told me I chose the right time—midnight on a Friday—to stop by for karaoke. “During the weekday it’s hit and miss,” he said. “But Friday and Saturday it’s always good.”
As I inquired about the crowd that night, almost as if in answer, he rushed back to his podium to stop a college-aged woman from commandeering his unattended microphone.
“It’s a liquid courage thing sometimes,” he replied. “People have got to take their shots or drink their beers or whatever they’ve got to do to get that courage to get up and sing.”
The liquid courage was flowing. The bar forgoes craft beer and designer cocktails for a sturdy looking collection of domestic drafts and cheap well drinks to fuel its patrons’ dreams of stardom. Vaughn pointed me in the direction of a regular named Peter Watkins who was performing sober tonight.
Watkins has been coming to West 2nd Street for 11 years. He said the sound system there is unrivaled, and that during Street Vibrations one year, his performance earned him a round of free drinks from the visiting Sacramento Police Department.
“I like to keep my chops up,” he said. “I’m always searching for that next high note. If you can emote a little bit as you’re moving around, it’s great. But if you love the song, it’s probably going to come out pretty well.”
Suddenly, I heard the opening chords of Santana’s “Smooth” and turned to see a young man oozing sweat and vocal talent in equal measure. He later told me his name is Nate Parker and that was his first time ever performing at West 2nd Street—and karaoke in general.
“I’ve always wanted to do karaoke,” Parker said. “I feel like I’m a good singer, and it’s something I’ve always talked to my friends about, but I never felt like I’ve been with the right crowd.”
I asked Parker how someone like me can overcome my pessimistic attitude about singing in front of strangers.
“Don’t care what anybody thinks,” he said. “Everybody’s here to have a good time, so they’re going to dance and sing along whether or not you’re doing a good job.”
As I left that night, I thought about the woman at the Cal Neva and realized she was braver than me. I didn’t sing after all—and, even if she bombed her performance, I’m likely the only one who remembers.