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Karaoke nation 

The city's close-knit sing-along subculture is all about make-believe. But in the new world of 'American Idol,' karaoke harbors real-life aspirations.

"I feel like I should be in a big room of people saying, 'Hi, I'm Jim. And I'm a karaoke addict.'"

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.

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