In essence, that's exactly what Jim McGriff is doing -- and he knows it. The 43-year-old loan officer from Woodstock is standing on stage at Underground Atlanta's Event Loft, in front of about 250 people, a gleaming trophy capped with a golden musical note in his arms.
It's the last Sunday in November, and McGriff is making his acceptance speech after winning the first of 2002's Georgia State Karaoke Music Awards, for Best Pop Vocalist. Less than 20 minutes earlier, he opined, "A KMA and $3 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. But to people in the karaoke community, it's a big deal." Now he's fighting back the tears, thanking everyone who helped make this possible.
In the audience, 24-year-old Jimmy Gikas sits in anticipation. He carpooled with McGriff when both visited karaoke bars seeking nominations for the KMAs. And now he's up for two awards -- Best Country Singer and Best Stage Performer -- his first nominations ever.
McGriff does karaoke five to seven nights a week. Sometimes he'll stop in to sing on his way home from work to relieve the day's tension. McGriff won Most Improved Singer at the 2001 awards, but he's humbled even more by this latest honor -- in part, because the road to this year's sixth annual KMAs was more demanding and competitive than ever.
Woman: "Karaoke is my life."
Man: "What is karaoke?"
"What? Where have you been, mister?"
"Airport hotel rooms. Suburbia. Mental jail."
"Well, they don't got it in jail yet, but they got it in every bar I've ever been in."
"And it's what exactly?"
"It's a rush like you wouldn't believe -- you're a star for three minutes!"
This handy bit of exposition comes early on in Gwyneth Paltrow's instantly forgotten 2000 movie, Duets, a film that, with a lot more luck, might've done for karaoke what Saturday Night Fever did for disco dancing.
It didn't. In fact, karaoke has never really enjoyed its moment in the full glare of the cultural spotlight. Frankly, it's never even been considered sort of cool.
On the other hand, karaoke hasn't needed much cachet to become a nightlife fixture far more enduring than disco -- a form of entertainment surpassing even live music everywhere but in America's urban cores. With little fanfare or trend spotting, karaoke has managed to insinuate itself over the past decade-and-a-half as the major interactive diversion of bar hounds globally and locally -- its users an invisible Republic of Pub Land.
But to diehards around metro Atlanta, karaoke is much more than a diversion. For many devotees, karaoke's power of transformation -- its invitation to taste stardom -- can be intoxicating. Enthusiasts have bonded to form a distinct subculture -- what they call the "karaoke community." To some, it's truly a way of life.
Of course, it's not quite like Duets' Hollywood treatment, where a man seeking escape from his numbing grind tries karaoke and, duly liberated, ends up dropping out of society entirely. Or where boy and girl meet at a karaoke bar and wind up driving off into the sunset together. Karaoke is the real deal. Just ask Robert Jones, a former Air Force captain and current KJ (karaoke jockey). Jones runs The Karaoke Store, where members of the community purchase karaoke equipment and CD-Gs -- discs with vocal-free tracks and video-displayed lyrics.
"You can judge the way people in a society feel about their military by how they're depicted in movies and TV shows," Jones says one afternoon in his Marietta store. "So at the time when 'Major Dad' was a big hit, the military had a very high respect level. Same kind of thing goes with karaoke. Now you have songs that mention karaoke -- like 'Pour Me' by Trick Pony, where they sing, 'Little did I know he was the king of karaoke' -- and you see it in movies like Duets."
IN PREVIOUS YEARS, winners of the Georgia State Karaoke Music Awards were chosen informally by a collection of karaoke jockeys mostly in Atlanta's northern and western suburbs. This year, nominees were required to take part in a two-month qualifying process involving bars from Austell to Stone Mountain -- a wider spectrum of Atlanta's karaoke community than had ever been assembled. In August, hopefuls were asked to sing at 28 participating venues on specified nights, in hopes of being nominated by the panel of KJ judges. The top three nominees in each category -- pop, R&B, rock, country, comedy -- then returned to the bars in September to compete for audience votes.
Jimmy Gikas and his girlfriend Amanda McIlrath visited nearly all of the participating bars. They live together in Woodstock with Amanda's 3-year-old son and her father, and they met through karaoke. Before her equipment got stolen, Amanda worked as a KJ at The Buffalo House. Jimmy came in one night and Amanda roped him into singing Garth Brooks' "Ain't Going Down ('Til The Sun Comes Up)."
Now their social life revolves around karaoke. Mondays they're at Poppers, Tuesdays at Runaround Sue's. Wednesdays it's Michael's, Thursdays the Firehouse. Fridays they're at Jimmy Mac's, Saturdays back at Michael's. And Sundays, without fail, it's Brewster's, where their friend (and owner of the tile business where Gikas works) Bob O'Brien -- aka Bob O -- serves up a surly brand of KJing that has earned him renown as the "Howard Stern of Karaoke."
With Gikas' two nominations -- Best Country Vocalist and the coveted Best Stage Presence award open to all genres of vocalists -- Jimmy and Amanda wouldn't have missed this year's KMAs. Winning means a lot to Gikas. A trophy or two, after all, would validate his talent -- a sign that maybe his goal of making a career as a country singer is attainable. He even brought along his mother and a close friend, who drove in from Florida.
The dream came alive in the past year or so since Gikas became part of what he calls the "karaoke family." Jimmy is different from the typical karaoke person. Most consider it recreation, some a hobby, some a social outlet, some even an obsession. And, given karaoke's roots and ubiquity in the Far East, Asian-born immigrants in areas like Buford Highway could even view it as an expression of cultural identity. But few view karaoke as a path to stardom.
Gikas aims to change that.
"For me, karaoke is a stepping stone to go somewhere," he says. "I don't have the means right now to just pack my stuff and move to Nashville. I want to become the ultimate karaoke person to make something of myself."
There's only one singer up for more awards than Gikas. His name is Matthew Sease, and if you ask folks in the karaoke community to name its biggest star, Sease's name will come up more often than not. When he enters a karaoke contest, he usually does his two signature songs: RuPaul's "Supermodel (You Better Work)," while dressed in drag; and the Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New," while wearing a dapper suit. And he usually wins.
In the strictly amateur world of karaoke singers, Sease has an advantage: He's a born performer. His father is singer Marvin Sease, a chitlin' circuit veteran known for off-color blues-oriented songs such as the cult favorite "Candy Licker." By all accounts, Matthew might be at least as talented a vocalist as his dad, who passed through town just a week before the KMAs, opening for Bobby "Blue" Bland at the Tabernacle. But the younger Sease, a pastry chef who works at Publix in Marietta and part time at Subway and Applebee's, has been content to flaunt his vocal gifts as the golden boy of Atlanta's suburban karaoke community.
"I do karaoke religiously -- I'm a karaoke junkie," he says. "I love to sing; it makes me feel really good about myself. I wake up in the morning singing."
Sease could barely contain his excitement before the KMAs. "It's a wonderful program," he says. "I get all dressed up, and it's like a night of the stars."
Once the awards for Best Venue (Sweetwater Inn), Best Rock Singer (Jennifer Marnell) and Best Product Supplier (The Karaoke Store) get handed out, Sease picks up his first Karaoke Music Award of the afternoon, for Best R&B Singer. He beats out Stone Mountain's Tony Tatum, one of the few nominees not based in and around Marietta. Tatum is also one of just 20 singers (out of 1,800) who passed the recent "American Idol" tryouts in Atlanta. This week, he flies to Los Angeles in hopes of making it onto the show.
"I felt like Michael Jackson at the Grammys," Sease says after walking away with his KMA award.
"I don't know, do you think it should be taken that seriously? It's a drinking sport."
Rodney Leete has just found out about the Karaoke Music Awards. Better known as "Rotknee," Leete is one of intown's busiest KJs, running karaoke shows Mondays at the Star Bar and Wednesdays at the Gravity Pub. He was never contacted to participate in the KMAs -- and he doesn't sound like he feels slighted by it, either.
Rotknee's "Your 15 Minutes of Fame Karaoke" show at the Star Bar caters to the city's bartenders and waitresses -- some of them struggling actors and artists -- for whom Monday night is often the start of the weekend. Conventional wisdom might define these patrons as more sophisticated than their suburban counterparts -- or at least more aware of karaoke's reputation as a totem of low culture. If so, Rotknee's regulars don't betray any sense that what they're doing is ironic, or somehow constitutes slumming. Like the singers up in Marietta, they do it to blow off steam, to pass the time while drinking with friends. Surely, when singing "Total Eclipse of the Heart" to dozens of instant fans, one needn't have tongue in cheek to have fun.
With a half-dozen intown karaoke spots to match the dozens in the 'burbs, it's getting harder and harder to avoid karaoke. Still, there are clearly those who'd like nothing to do with the pastime. Among them, musicians whose aesthetic calls for realness -- singer/songwriters, rappers, indie rockers -- might be uncomfortable with karaoke's unselfconscious flaunting of make-believe. The D.I.Y. set, in particular, takes a dim view of celebrity posing in general, and working musicians resent how karaoke is a much cheaper proposition for bars (and perhaps draws a bigger crowd) than live music.
Karaoke started in Japan (its name an abbreviated compound of the words "empty" and "orchestra") and once seemed entirely foreign. Now it appears particularly in line with American pop culture in the age of reality television. There's role-playing, where everyday people become stars, and canned music that further divorces popular entertainment from any notion of art. What is "American Idol," after all, but the world's highest quality night of karaoke?
But perhaps the punk rocker's disdain for karaoke is misplaced. Indeed, what other form of public music performance is more populist? Talk about do-it-yourself -- anyone can do karaoke. The typical singer needs no instruments, no musical knowledge, no particular skill as a vocalist. And unlike the often self-indulgent world of live rock and hip-hop, people actually have fun going to karaoke.
Rotknee is on to something. He plans on using sound-filtering software to create new karaoke music tracks not available among the hundreds of thousands of licensed songs. "I'm going to do all punk rock stuff," he says. "I've been living downtown for 16 years. That's all I know; that's what I'm sticking with."
Jimmy Gikas is No. 5374. It's four Sundays before the Karaoke Music Awards, and today, being No. 5374 means he's going to be the 374th person in line to sing one chorus (or one verse and one chorus) for a panel of "American Idol" producers. Gikas arrived yesterday evening and got in line outside America's Mart downtown. He stayed up all night in the late-October chill before he and the others were filed into the building at 8 a.m. He'll wait until 6 p.m. before he actually gets to sing.
At least he's got a good number -- '53 is the year his dad was born and '74 the birth year of his girlfriend Amanda, who's with him during this entire process. He'll take all the luck he can get.
"A lot of the reason I'm here is to see if I can make it -- if I do have the goods," Gikas says. "The next reason is to show some of these people that don't think a karaoke person can make it, that we can actually do something. A lot of people make fun of karaoke people. I tell you what, I can [think] of 10 karaoke people I know who could be 'American Idol' finalists."
In fact, first-season finalist Nikki McKibbin did a lot of karaoke in Texas before making it onto the show, says "American Idol" senior producer David Goffin. "It's good training," he says. "Singing, getting the voice muscles going."
Gikas needs a strategy. Noting the dearth of country singers that made it to the finals last season, he decides to ditch the genre and audition with Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday." And to his advantage, he's not the kind of country singer to wear a cowboy hat and boots. Today, he's wearing his fairly standard outfit for big karaoke competitions: black leather pants, black leather jacket and shirt with a red-and-black snakeskin pattern. His beard is shaved to a hairline width, accentuating his jawbones, and his black hair is spiked and highlighted red. "I'm like the country bad-ass. That's the way I want to look at it," he says.
The gambit pays off. Gikas' 24-hour ordeal ends with an invitation to return Wednesday. He'll be with about 200 others, whittled down from the initial 1,800. If he passes Wednesday's audition, he'll join the 100 or so who get to sing on Thursday in front of the show's on-air judges, including the acerbic Brit Simon Cowell. The 20 singers who meet Simon's approval get flown to L.A.
Before karaoke became his focus, Gikas raced go-karts for more than a decade, bouncing back after a crash at age 16 that cracked his skull and put him in a coma. So for the resilient 24-year-old, heavy competition is expected. It's even part of the thrill.
The Wednesday night after the "American Idol" auditions, members of the karaoke community gather at Runaround Sue's in Marietta for the bar's monthly competition. The winner gets $600. Many of the usual singers are here. Matthew Sease is not. He won last month and isn't eligible to win again for 90 days.
Bob O is on hand, though he's not KJing -- part-time Elvis impersonator Dana Daniels has the gig. Bob doesn't actually sing much himself, and when he does, it tends to be command performances of "Because I Got High," which -- as sung by a bald 51-year-old white guy with bad teeth and a Boston accent thick as chowder -- is even funnier than the original. But Bob O goes to karaoke shows three or four nights a week in addition to doing his own show, just to support the scene and keep tabs on other KJs. He even runs an AOL newsgroup for Atlanta's karaoke community, and recently started printing a monthly newsletter.
"I can walk into anybody's karaoke show, and people there will know me," he says. "No matter where I walk in, you're going to hear someone say, 'Bob O!' I'm like the Norm of 'Cheers.'"
After moving from Massachusetts to Florida to Georgia, working seven days a week at two or three jobs -- as a truck driver, in drive-thru liquor stores, doing tiling -- O'Brien found himself divorced, estranged from his three grown kids and living alone outside of Atlanta. In 1996, he suffered his second heart attack and decided to slow down.
One night, while hanging out playing video poker at his regular bowling alley, a woman approached him, nearly begging him to take a turn on the karaoke stage. It was Carol Lawrence, known as the "princess of karaoke," who always went out of her way to encourage new singers when she KJed. O'Brien was hooked. And soon, Bob O -- the Howard Stern of Karaoke -- was born.
"I've been around and I've watched a lot of KJs," he says, "and I think personality is the No. 1 thing that makes a KJ. After personality, song selection and equipment comes next."
Bob O has a relatively small song selection -- roughly 7,000 tracks -- but he more than makes up for it in personality alone. "A lot of people say, 'The first time I ever went to Bob's show, I said to myself I'd never go back to that man's show again,'" O'Brien says of his steady Sunday gig at Brewster's. "Because they didn't know how to take me; I just have a very rude and abrasive way of talking. I'm a typical Yankee. I don't care what I say over the microphone. But they all know it's not personal. And they keep coming back every week, because they all like to be abused."
To combat karaoke-shy bar patrons who claim they only sing in the shower, Bob O's shows feature a portable shower stall made of PVC pipe and a curtain. And where typical karaoke etiquette dictates keeping a regular rotation of singers -- first come, first served -- Bob's refusal to follow an order makes him something of an insurgent among KJs. He jumps around, picking singers and styles according to the mood of the room, much like a DJ would craft a dance mix.
Tonight at Runaround Sue's, 16 contestants perform a song each for the judges, who will then award cash prizes to the top three. Among the early singers is Tom "Tooo Bad" Blanton, an African-American entrepreneur from Roswell (his motto: "multiple sources of income") whose age could be anywhere from late 40s to late 60s, and he's not telling. Tooo Bad is one of the scene's top singers. But in recent years, he's assumed even more of a leadership role in the karaoke community as the founder and organizer of the Georgia State Karaoke Music Awards and proprietor of the BigKaraoke.com website. For tonight's contest, Tooo Bad is performing one of his most successful routines. Dressed in a black cape, black tux, sequined shirt and white gloves, he sings a pitch-perfect version of "I Feel Good," complete with "good God!" and "can't help myself!" injected at just the right moments.
Ron Morgan, a 52-year-old custom framer from Kennesaw, is also among the contestants. His forte is improvisation, something relatively rare in the world of karaoke. There's also Courtney Oliver, a retired football coach at Lassiter High, who now sings professionally with a nostalgia group called the Sock Hops. And there's OC Payn, a straight-laced Kennesaw postal worker who dresses up as Janis Joplin and performs a full-throated version of "Piece of My Heart," whiskey bottle in hand. And Matt Kent, a 23-year-old also from Kennesaw, who sings "Wanted Dead or Alive." He wears studded leather gloves, sunglasses and a black outlaw hat, and sheds his black trench coat to reveal leather chaps over jeans and no shirt.
Jimmy Gikas also performs. Only a few hours have passed since his "American Idol" call-backs, where producers told him his voice had overpowered his chosen song (O-Town's "All or Nothing") and was too "broad" for what they were looking for. So it's back to country for Jimmy.
It could be that Gikas is worn down from the auditions, because when the KJ announces the winners at Runaround Sue's, he doesn't place in the top five. OC Payn earns the $150 third prize. And in a stunning bit of illogic on someone's part, Ron Morgan and Matt Kent tie for second, splitting the $250 second prize (each ending up with less than the third-place winner). Tooo Bad walks away $600 richer with a first-place finish.
For Gikas, there isn't much time to focus on the day's disappointments. The USA Network is auditioning for singers to compete in "Nashville Star," its country version of "American Idol," set to air next year. And next week, there's another karaoke contest, at The Place.
Like any subculture, the karaoke community has a code of conduct, an unofficial set of rules that more or less impact the relationships formed between singers. Foremost, criticizing other singers goes against karaoke's most basic principles. And since regulars tend to have "signature songs," it's bad form to sing someone else's tune if they're present -- particularly if you can do it better. People also tend to get bent out of shape when a good singer is constantly competing in -- and winning -- contests, especially if the singer doesn't come out to support karaoke shows on normal nights.
Traci Blanchard has been accused of the last offense. But she no longer has the time to go out regularly, so she chooses her singing opportunities wisely. The 38-year-old teaches English at Lassiter and no longer focuses much on singing. Though she has won Karaoke Music Awards in the past, this year's nominations process was too grueling for her. "I don't even go out that much anymore," she says. "I can't compete that way. I'd be a tired puppy."
At one point, it looked like karaoke might pave the way to a career for Blanchard. Her sister Kaci, who also got started singing karaoke, took her to meet with a talent agent. The two signed on as a duo, and the agent suggested they try writing some songs. Traci entered one of hers in the Georgia Songwriting Competition and won first prize, which led to recording some demos in Nashville and forming a band. Two years ago, she auditioned for a Dick Clark- produced television show called "Your Big Break," which spotlighted unknowns who sound like famous singers. Based on her vocal similarities to Cher, Traci was picked to appear on the show, which aired nationally in January 2001.
But not much else materialized. The agency went out of business. Kaci got a job as a contact lenses technician, and Traci went back to teaching. And back to singing karaoke. "It's an outlet [for] when I miss being on stage," she says. "I can go to a bar and get applause, and I don't have to make any commitment to it."
While The Place's contest, which promises over $1,000 in prize money, is the kind of event that might've brought out big guns like Blanchard and Matthew Sease, neither is among the qualifiers. And by the time all 18 contestants have performed, the stakes have risen even higher. Pete, a middle-aged man from the neighborhood, had a few drinks early on and thought it would be a kick to help judge the contest. He recently sold his business and has some extra cash lying around, so he ups the first-place prize from $550 to $800 in exchange for a seat at the judges' table.
When the votes are tallied, Tooo Bad gets fifth with his James Brown moves, OC Payn's Janis Joplin wins fourth and the eclectic Matt Kent, dropping Bon Jovi for a Sinatra homage, ends up third. Ron Morgan, improvising over Barry White, takes first. Jimmy Gikas doesn't place with his version of Travis Tritt's "Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde"; instead, he wins $50 for being the most energetic audience member.
Two days later in Birmingham, Gikas makes the first cut at the "Nashville Star" auditions, singing Travis Tritt's "Trouble." He repeats the song when he returns for the second round the following week, but it fails to keep him alive in the competition.
Still, Gikas figures this losing streak is bound to end. After all, he's able to hit his intended notes, which right away puts him in the upper echelon of karaoke performers. And it's not like he's never won a karaoke contest before. The Karaoke Music Awards, with his two nominations, are now just a week away. Big things could be in store.
"They're actually going to have record producers there -- NYC Fame is supposed to be there -- and there's going to be a lot of producers from Nashville, Atlanta, places like that," he says. "Because it's a big red-carpet kind of thing. People are bringing limos. This is huge."
Midway through the 2002 Georgia Karaoke Awards, Matthew Sease is still basking in the glory of his Best R&B Singer win. It doesn't bother him much when Rich Lanford -- an extremely heavy man who dresses in trashy lingerie to sing "Sweet Transvestite" -- beats him in the Best Comical/Parody Singer category. That first win was fun enough, and affirmation that his friends in the karaoke community appreciate his talents.
"I'd be rich if I had a nickel for each time someone told me, 'How come you're wasting your time in these karaoke bars -- why are you doing it?'" Sease says. "People say, 'With your father, how come you don't do this and that?'
"It's not about him," he continues. "Me and my father, we have two totally different styles. And karaoke makes me feel like a star."
Sease was born in New York, but after his parents divorced, he moved to Charleston, S.C., with his mother and twin brother. While attending culinary school there, he developed a following for his drag shows. On Marvin Sease's occasional performance stops in Charleston, fans told him about his son's vocal and performance abilities. "One time he asked me to send him a demo, but it never happened," Sease says. "I didn't take him too seriously. My father heard me sing for the first time very recently, at my brother's wedding three weeks ago. He was extremely impressed -- and that's something coming from my father, who thinks he writes the book on everything."
Sease is by no means estranged from his father, but he's not particularly close with him either. So while he's otherwise open about being gay, it's not something he's ever discussed with his dad. "I don't think he'd approve. But I'm grown, and I have to do what I love to do -- what makes me happy."
And what makes him happy right now is karaoke.
"Most places I go, I'm the only black person, and more or less gay person as well," he says. "And it's never an issue. I've been lucky. I never have had any kind of problems at all. Friendship I value very deeply. Particularly in the karaoke scene, a lot of people are very close and stick together. It's a pretty loving community."
In fact, Sease rides with Jimmy Gikas and his girlfriend to the Karaoke Music Awards. And he's sitting nearby when Alan Culver beats out Jimmy for Best Country Singer honors. When Gikas gets passed over for the Best Stage Performer category as well, it's Sease who ends up on stage as the winner.
"You really do love me!" he says in mock Sally Field voice. "This means so much to me. And I'm going to stop now, because I think my mascara's about to run."
Later that night, Bob O -- this year's Best KJ winner -- is spinning the karaoke tunes at Brewster's, his trophy towering above his equipment. It's one of three KMA after-parties. Jim McGriff is there. So is Tooo Bad. And Matthew Sease.
At the awards, Gikas was noticeably disappointed by losing twice. Now, hanging out with all these karaoke champions can't be too fun either. Worse than losing, he had a special surprise planned for his acceptance speech, which he never got to deliver.
Still, something reminds Jimmy that -- whether it's racing or singing or anything else -- defeat is ephemeral, and destiny can't be denied.
When it's Gikas' turn to sing, Bob O cuts off the music. On stage, Gikas breaks into Michael Peterson's "From Here to Eternity," performing it a cappella. The audience cheers. Sease starts passing around bar napkins to soak up the impending tears, because he knows what's about to happen. Jimmy Gikas pulls out a ring and, over the karaoke mic, asks for Amanda's hand in marriage.
Sease pledges to bake the cake.
It's hard to tell if Jimmy now knows what it feels like to be a modern-day Icarus -- the mere mortal of karaoke who got burned for thinking he could fly too close to celebrity's shining sun. But as the party winds down and he heads into the Brewster's game room for a round of pool with his friends, he seems happy to be back on Earth for a while.
The week after the awards, Amanda admits Jimmy had been pretty discouraged about his luck of late.
"He said things like, 'Do I suck that bad that I can't even win a freakin' karaoke contest?' He did the typical, 'I'm just not going to karaoke anymore, I'm not going to do it,'" she says. "But then the very next night, we were out doing it again. And yesterday, he says to me, 'Oh well, I'll just go to Nashville and get a record deal. Screw them all.'"
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