Wasting Away in Karaokeville

More than a fad, karaoke has customers— and cash registers—singing at bars all over the city.

Andy Smull had thrilled Capitol Hill's Twilight Exit with his karaoke version of the Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl" before, but he'd never prefaced it quite like this.

"Ingo, will you marry me?" he said into the microphone before delivering personalized lyrics to the punk-rock girl he'd met at the Twilight four years before: "Let's travel round the world, just you and me, Ingo Wurl!" 

Ingo said yes—the Twilight's first karaoke engagement. And while many who witnessed the proposal were Twilight regulars, there were as many newcomers. Once a fad embraced only by the supremely talented or obscenely drunk, karaoke has crossed over to the big time in Seattle, drawing crowds from Ballard to the ID.

"Whoever invented karaoke should get the Nobel Peace Prize," says Garnett Brooks, who bartends at the Crescent Lounge, also on Capitol Hill. "People feel like a million dollars coming off that stage." (As a matter of fact, Osaka-born Daisuke Inoue, who invented karaoke in 1971, was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 by the Annals of Improbable Research.)

Joe Martin, whose family resumed ownership of the Crescent two years ago, was at first skeptical of the bar's three-nights-a-week karaoke. "Until I looked at the numbers," he says. Now the Crescent (pictured) hosts karaoke seven nights a week.

Hard to beat: a strategy for world peace that also turns a healthy profit.

Sunday at the Twilight and every night at the Crescent represent two of the pillars of Seattle karaoke. The others:

Bush Garden became Seattle's first karaoke bar in the mid-'80s, when founder Roy Seko introduced a karaoke machine to the International District. The lounge has been packed ever since.

The Rickshaw, in Greenwood, boasts a rock-star-good clientele who tout their nightly karaoke sanctuary for its community feel, wireless mikes, and soulful performances.

On Lower Queen Anne, Ozzie's is heavy on Jägermeister, testosterone, and falsetto Bonnie Tyler. These are the big names, but there are now weekly karaoke options in every Seattle neighborhood as more people practice socially acceptable exhibitionism.

A recent weeknight out in the International District reveals a typical karaoke deflowering. Drink No. 1: Virgin vows he won't sing. Drink No. 2: He begins leafing through the songbook. Drink No. 3: He turns in his song to the karaoke jockey, immediately regretting it. Drink No. 4: He pops his cherry with "Paint It Black," discovering a God complex onstage. Drink No. 5: He signs up for Lil Kim's "Magic Stick." And so on . . . while the cash register sings its own merry tune.

But bar owners aren't the only ones cashing in on the karaoke craze. Comcast offers karaoke tracks on pay-per-view. You can purchase a karaoke machine and accompanying CDs at Target for the price of an expensive toaster. Karaoke tracks, trafficked in an AV format called CD+G, are copied and shared. Professional karaoke vendors such as Kent-based On Cloud Nine Karaoke can host parties in multiple languages. What used to take place only in obscure lounges is now happening at family gatherings. (Perhaps signaling the impending apocalypse, On Cloud Nine owner Angel witnessed a 4-year-old performing Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet" at such a family affair.)

Not all sectors of the karaoke industry are thriving, however. The corny videos that accompany lyrics on a karaoke lounge big screen are endangered as laser disks lose out to 30,000-song digital libraries like the new system at Ballard's Sunset Bowl. (See it while it lasts: "I've Never Been to Me" at Bush Garden, featuring a perverse drama acted out by Barbie dolls.)

Even if they fade away, karaoke videos are hardwired into the culture. Director Matt Daniels and screenwriter Matt Carthum recently completed an independent film, Unsung (www.unsungmovie.com). The comedy—about creating the greatest karaoke video ever—was filmed at the Twilight and features regulars like Ingo and Andy. Unsung has aired at the Northwest Film Forum and will soon be available on DVD.

So what's the next frontier in karaoke? Kidaoke. The next generation is dispensing of inhibitions at an early age, thanks to karaoke's newfound portability and the emergence of karaoke outsourcers like On Cloud 9 Karaoke. "I tell the parents, sing now," says Cloud 9's Angel, who hosts family parties. "Because you won't be able to sing once the kids get ahold of the microphone."


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