If you happen to find yourself in Tokyo, then Shibuya’s a great place to start an evening. So we were there at Starbucks, just Aki and me slamming back steaming black grandes and Hitomi sipping some kind of whipped cream desert marketed to her as a coffee. I swear I don’t know how she stays so thin.
Then after a while, probably because we’d had a ton of caffeine, somebody said, “We should go get some beers. We really should.”
Probably I said that. But still, it was an excellent idea. So we left, but not before I stuffed a handful of Starbucks napkins into my pocket. They’re high-quality paper, and it’s not stealing if they’re free. I haven’t bought tissues or paper towels in years.
So we went to Family Mart and got a bag of cheese popcorn and three tall bottles of Kirin beer, because Hitomi “doesn’t like drinking out of cans.” Girls, jeez. Then after standing out front in the cold drinking and eating popcorn for about one minute, somebody said, “Christ it’s cold. We should go to karaoke and warm up.”
Again, me; okay, I’ll own that. Still, it was another damn fine idea.
“What d’we do with the beers?” asked Hitomi.
“Never fear,” I said. Famous last words. I had on this black leather coat, so I inserted one into each vest pocket of the coat, left and right, and palmed the other one up a sleeve. I didn’t spend five years in college for nothing.
The lobby of the karaoke place was buzzing with high school kids, but Aki managed to get us a room for 30 bucks apiece for 3 hours, including all-you-can-drink booze. He’s genius like that. I kinda had to pee, on account of all the coffee and beer, so I just stood back, clutched the beer up my coat sleeve, and concentrated on Hitomi’s ass.
Finally, the guy at the counter handed Aki a little orange basket with two microphones and a tambourine, and off we went to the elevator.
And Then Things Went South
And…Then It Happened. My hands were a bit sweaty. Maybe it was having to pee. Maybe it was Hitomi’s ass, who knows. But that sweat combined with some residual cheese popcorn slime formed a NASA-grade lubricant on the surface of the beer bottle, which somehow, uh, slipped. Suddenly, there was a massive Bam! as the bottle hit the tile and beer started gushing out. Everybody stopped and stared in gape-mouthed amazement—other customers, the high school kids, the staff behind the counter—-watching a white guy in a black coat, in the middle of the lobby, in the center of Shibuya, in the middle of Tokyo, trying to mop up a smuggled beer with a stack of high-quality Starbucks napkins.
Beer, there was so much beer. It was like a lake of beer in the lobby. I was mopping like crazy, but the borders of the lake kept expanding. It grew to an ocean of beer. “Where’s all this fucking beer coming from?” I lamented. Like you know how Job lamented to God in the bible? Yeah well, I used roughly the same voice. It was like beer was freaking pouring from the heavens. And that was about the time I realized that bending over with a couple beers in one’s coat pockets was not a winning strategy. My coat was raining typhoons of beer. The Starbucks napkins were useless.
Nobody said a word, of course. You know, after the Great Tohoku Earthquake, the foreign press noted how “calm and orderly,” everyone was, like that’s a good thing. Hey, there’s a time for panic, like when the ocean’s swallowing up a few thousand people or God’s unleashing his wrath on your lobby with torrential beer. But the truth is, Japanese folks never react much to anything. Which in this case, worked in my favor, since two of the staff just wordlessly shuffled over with a mop and a bucket and started swabbing the decks. Of course, Aki, Hitomi, and I did the proper and responsible thing. We took our little orange basket and ran giggling to the elevator, got to our room, ordered a massive round of drinks, and launched into Bohemian Rhapsody. Now that’s a song.
So possibly that’s not the best way to start off with karaoke, whatever. Let’s get back to basics. Since I don’t know how much karaoke you actually do, I’ll just lay it out from Square One.
7 Rules for Singing Karaoke in Japan
1. Make a song list
This is why He invented the smartphone. And by “He,” I mean The Creator, of course. Because Steve Jobs wouldn’t want to see you sitting there with your head all dog-tilted, going “uh, what should I sing?” That’s a straight amateur move. Instead, every time you hear a song that sounds good or even remotely singable, note it in your phone. That way, when you get to karaoke, you’re good to go. He would like that.
2. Search for value in Japan
Prices vary insanely. I’ve paid hundreds of dollars for a night of karaoke. Okay, maybe there were some ladies involved. I’m a little hazy on the details. But I’ve also paid next to nothing, with enough booze and snacks to mortify a cardiologist. Suffice to say that karaoke is a competitive business and if you look around, you can find some impressive deals. Skip chains like Big Echo and look for places with peeling paint and blocked fire exits. Now you’re getting your groove on.
3. Go to karaoke alone
Ever played basketball? Yeah, me neither, but I’m pretty sure dudes spend a lot of time practicing shots by themselves. Same thing with karaoke, only minus the ball and sneakers. If you go alone, especially on a weekday, it can cost as little as two bucks an hour, with free soft drinks. Try drinking fifty Cokes and not singing a mess of songs, I dare you. Never mind the dental bills. Greatness demands sacrifice. Okay sure, going alone, you feel like a loser with no friends, but that’s just all in your head. Unless you actually have no friends, in which case, well hey, at least you can have fun singing a mess of songs.
By yourself, you can practice the same tune over and over until you either get it right or decide it doesn’t work for you. Sometimes a song seems perfect, but for some reason, bombs. Maybe the key’s too high, or the rhythm’s weird, or you don’t actually know the words. Whatever. No reason to subject others to hours of your horrible singing. Go through your song list and work that shit out in advance.
4. Tune the electronics
Karaoke machines have three or four dials on the front that take you from Abysmal to Amazing, depending on how you twist them. If you can read Japanese, it’s kind of helpful, but not necessary. (I should mention, by the way, that virtually all karaoke places have electronic songbooks with the option for English.)
Anyway, back the machine itself. The buttons, in left-to-right order, are for Background music, Background vocals (if there are 4 buttons), Echo, and Microphone. I think that’s right. Anyway, play around. I generally set the background music pretty high, and the mic a touch lower. Then crank up the echo. If you’ve got the mic too high, you’ll sound tinny, and worse, you’ll be able to hear how much of a crappy singer you actually are. Don’t want that. If you balance it right, your mediocre voice will blend into the music and you’ll sound pretty good. Enough echo and you’ll sound great.
5. Really sing
If there’s a trick to karaoke, it’s probably this: you’ve gotta actually sing. As in, fill your lungs with air and project your voice, holding the notes. I know it sounds super obvious, but a lot of folks don’t do it. You can’t half-ass singing. It’s not talking. And that goes double for karaoke. It’s not like your car or your shower. The electronics help, if you get right up on the mic and sing loudly. If you have to turn down the microphone volume, you’re on the right track.
6. Don’t sing over people
Want to be the most annoying karaoke guest ever? Then every time somebody else is singing, sing along, loudly, and preferably off-key. That helps to drown them out and negate any effort they’re making to actually sing the song.
You gotta use some judgment here, which isn’t always easy when you’re dealing with an all-you-can-drink special, but try anyway. It’s fine to sing the chorus of Yellow Submarine. Look at the lyrics. We all live in a yellow submarine. That’s your first clue. We are the World? Great, same thing. But nobody wants you to screw up their rendition of Poker Face. Give somebody else the chance to be Lady Gaga for a change.
Like, you know how your uncle watches football and he’s all, Well if I was the quarterback, I’d have thrown a screen pass? And you’re like, No Uncle Jimmy, you wouldn’t have. Because you’re a fat old fart on a sofa, watching somebody else do something that’s actually hard. Like somehow in our minds, we all think we can do well given the chance, but the reality is, it’s a good thing Jimmy’s not on the field. Singing over people is like being that guy at the comedy club who shouts out the punchline before the comedian. Everybody’s having fun, and it’s easy to get caught up and want to participate. So although it’s exciting when you hear a song you like, now just might be a good time to eat a heaping serving of Shut the Fuck Up. Stay on the sofa and everybody gets a turn.
7. Don’t Facebook me, bro
Karaoke’s a lot like homemade porn. It always seems like a great idea to take video, until later when your wife finds the one with you and the babysitter. And no matter how well you think you’re doing, you’re not gonna look like a professional anyway. So stick with stills and everybody looks good.
One more small, but big thing: although it may sound terribly 2005, nobody needs their boss calling them into the office because you decided to post Ken Seeroi’s version of Shots to social media. That’s never a fun conversation. What happens in karaoke, stays in karaoke, right? Let’s just say right.
And Now You’re a Karaoke Superstar
So there you go. Follow those seven rules and you’ll be all up on the mic like Little Wayne. Then all you need is a trip to Shibuya, a bunch of coffee, three beers, and some cheese popcorn. Having a few young ladies along would also help, but then it always does. Ah, but that’s another story.