I refuse on principle to write a “positive reflections from a year of coronavirus pandemic” post because quite honestly, I didn’t learn anything positive from a year of pandemic.
Still, I want to write something reflective. Thus, I’m taking inspiration from Stuart Danker’s post Lessons Learned From That Time I Joined A Cage Fight, and I’m going to share what I learned my [presently COVID-defunct] hobby – competitive karaoke.
What is competitive karaoke, you ask? It’s similar to regular karaoke, except there are teams, themes, and scoring. Read ahead (#3 below) to learn more about the scoring. I competed in at least 5 non-consecutive seasons with several teams over the course of a few years. I won and I lost (far more often than I won), and here is what I learned:
1. Humiliating Yourself in Public Only Kills You If You Let It.
Did I make a complete fool out of myself in front of a roomful of people? Loads of times. Was it awful and humiliating? You bet! Did I want to melt into the floor and die after my performance? Of course. Did I cry in public? More times than I care to admit. Is there video evidence of my epically bad performances on YouTube? Quite possibly, though I haven’t checked and quite frankly, don’t want to know. (There was a guy who used to record the performances, as most people wanted recordings).
And yet, I’m still here. And I went back and did it again and again and again. Humiliation is awful and it sucks. But it won’t kill you if you don’t let it.
2. If You’re Going To Fail, Fail Big.*
Actually, this came from my high school theater teacher. But it was in competitive karaoke where I really grasped this concept. If you’re mid-song and screwing up meekly and passively, it will be awkward and it sucks for you and the audience.
Instead, go big and bold. Commit to your wrong notes and sing louder. Dance. Break the rules of the song and chat up the audience. Have fun with it! Your audience will think you did it on purpose and they will have a good time. It won’t win any awards, but you and the audience will both have a better time.
*Disclaimer: This only applies to performance. Not public policy or running a business. If you are making decisions with significant financial and/or socioeconomic consequences, this advice does not apply.
3. Every Scoring System is Flawed in Some Way.
How does one judge a karaoke competition? Well, there are several options. One option is to have an expert judge or judge panel. One option is to have the audience / public vote judge. A lot of the talent competition reality shows have a combo of expert judge and popular vote judge. I know of a league that had competitors judge each other. And then there is the “objective” computer judge – think karaoke video games or the vocal analyzer in Sing On! on Netflix.
And all the systems have their flaws. The expert judge is too likely to lean in to their own personal preferences. If you’re the best rapper around and your judge hates rap, you’ll never win. Expert judges are also easily fatigued if they’ve heard your song too many times before. Popular vote? You don’t actually have to be any good. Just flood the bar with your friends and bribe them all with drinks. I think it goes without saying that your competitors are not going to judge with objectivity; they are going to judge with strategy. And the computer? Accuracy is not the same as amazing. The computer will take off points for the flair and creativity that make a performance memorable and incredible and award points to the mediocre performances that exactly match the original.
So don’t base your self-worth as a performer on the scoring because it’s all flawed.
4. Losing is Hard (at Any Age and Regardless of the Stakes), But Keep Things in Perspective.
You might think that people would stop being sore losers once they become mature adults. This is definitely not the case. Competitive karaoke attracts everyone from the “I’m drunk and whatever so why not” type to the “My voice is my profession and I’m here to be discovered” type. If you’re in the latter category, even if you know the judging system is flawed, losing is a blow to the identity you have crafted for yourself.
It made people crazy and things often got ugly. There were long arguments with the league hosts about the scores. There were rampant accusations of cheating and score manipulation. One season, members of my team had a particular beef with a member of a competing team who seemed to be particularly awful re: judging and scoring. I recall a conversation amongst my team members just blasting this guy. You’d think based on the vitriol that this guy had done something really awful, like abuse animals or vote for the wrong candidate or something, rather than merely low-ball the scores in a karaoke contest. I wasn’t friends with this guy and it was still uncomfortable.
Mind you, it’s not as if the winner got a significant cash prize or a record deal or anything. The winning team members got a cheap plastic trophy. I was trying to be the voice of “Well, maybe he’s not a nice guy, but manipulating the scoring that we already know is deeply flawed in a non-cash prize karaoke contest isn’t exactly evil, so let’s tone it down a bit” but it wasn’t terribly convincing. I was pretty competitive too, and I wasn’t friends with this guy.
Anyway, time passed. This guy wound up dying young about five years after that season due to health complications. I wasn’t close with this guy, but when I read his obituary, I felt really guilty that this guy had just been raked over the coals by his bitter karaoke competitors. Maybe he never knew, and maybe he was trash-talking us too, but still.
Moral of the story: Life is short. Spend it belting your favorite song into a microphone, not screaming about your enemies.
5. Make Losing Suck Less by Being the Change You Want to See.
Of course, maintaining perspective is very hard. So let’s approach from another angle. Why exactly does losing even an extremely low-stakes competition suck? For me, it’s because I imagine everyone talking about me behind my back and saying horrible things about how much I suck, how I don’t belong, how could I possibly be so delusional to think I am any good, etc. Rationally, I know that most people are too self-absorbed to spare a moment’s thought about someone tangential to their life making a fool out of herself. I mean self-absorbed in a positive way. Most people have very full, rich lives and they direct most of their energy to thinking about the things in their own life and they don’t spend much mental energy on the people on the periphery, which is a good thing. But the very idea that someone could be thinking for a moment about my loser status drives me absolutely nuts.
I can’t control what anyone else thinks. But I can control my own actions. So I make it a point to not talk about people who fail spectacularly at karaoke behind their backs. I applaud for every performance. I make those drunken short-lived bar friendships with people of all vocal abilities. It makes it easier to imagine that other people aren’t talking shit about me.
6. If You’re Going To Drink, Know Thy Drunken Self.
Karaoke usually takes place in a bar. It’s not a requirement, but one will often imbibe alcohol at said bar. Long story short, I got to know drunk JYP very well.
I learned the bell curve of my performance quality vs. # of alcoholic beverages consumed. (Note to self: Do not attempt “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” after 3 drinks.) I learned the signs of when to stop drinking to avoid puking my brains out / being horrifically hungover the next day. Of course, I also learned how much time I had before I needed to vomit and how to work while completely hungover because, well, trial and error. I learned the number of drinks to get to Fun JYP, Flirty JYP, Depressed JYP, and “Drunk Enough To Admit The Depths Of My Depression JYP” (Side note: Is it bad form to go to therapy drunk if you’re not driving…)
In an ideal world, one would have a completely healthy relationship with alcohol and never do anything stupid under the influence. Or even feel a need to drink in the first place. But if you’re imperfect like me, become self-aware enough to do fewer stupid drunk things.
7. Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect, But You Will Get Better
Karaoke is a form of singing. Yes, it’s mostly a form of drunk idiots screaming badly into a microphone and calling that entertainment. But it is also a form of singing. Doing a lot of karaoke as part of a competitive league is a form of practice.
Before I joined the league, I had one go-to song. I was completely intimidated at Week 1 because I was, pardon the pun, out of my league. Several seasons later, I have several go-to songs across a few different genres. I got better at harmonizing and duets too.
I improved so much that one of my former team members, who was an actual professional singer, recruited me for an unpaid choir gig at a well known performance venue which I will not share the name of because I don’t want to give away my location. So, although I never reached the level of skill where people were willing to pay money to listen to my voice, I can now say that I have performed at [Well Known Venue]. True, I mostly got the gig through networking. That’s another life lesson there – If you don’t have talent, learn to network!
I can’t speak for everyone, but I gained far more life lessons making a drunken fool out of myself in hopes of winning a cheap plastic trophy, crying in public after not winning said trophy, and later puking in a bush than I did for the year of sitting in front of my computer in my lousy apartment 24/7 because of the pandemic.