I engage in a stare-down with a toilet at Sidekick’s, a karaoke bar on Montrose Avenue just east of the expressway. I squint as I try to focus on the blurry image of my cellphone at the bottom of the bowl. Through the bathroom door, I can hear a chorus of hoarse voices singing in unison: “SWEET CAROLINE! BAHM BAHM BUM …” I automatically mumble along as I plunge my hand into the cool wetness of wees past.
After quickly rinsing my phone in the sink and wiping it against my shirt, I beg my feet to balance along the edge of the dance floor leading to a stage. Two ladies dressed in matching jean jackets rap Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop” into a microphone. My friend Ray leans on a high-top table, fingering a three-inch-thick black binder of songs wrapped in plastic sheets. A karaoke regular makes the universal Want a drink? gesture at me. I nod yes, again forgetting his name. When he delivers my beverage, I decide to go with “Thanks! Long time no see, man!”
The room thumps. The red-and-blue glow of a neon Bud Light signs spills across the bar, coating every face. It’s now my friend Bounce’s turn at the mic, and the crowd dances and sings along with her rendition of Toto’s “Africa.” The world has stopped. Nothing matters except for this moment. Firefighter David braces himself, and Bounce runs into his arms. He lifts her above his head, à la Dirty Dancing. The small crowd erupts. A security guard scurries to them, admonishing, “Please keep your feet on the ground.” I beam as if I had been the one to leap. It feels like a dream, one where I’m starring in a real-life music video that also stars a bunch of my buddies. But this isn’t a fantasy. It’s Karaoke Club.
I’ve known Bounce and Ray since my roller derby days. In 2015, they started Karaoke Club, a loose collection of around 20 sing-along enthusiasts who periodically gather to croon at various Chicago bars. Bounce is a Filipino Irish introvert who loves dogs and typically prefers the solitude of a national park to the congestion of a crowded bar — unless singing is involved. Ray is a wide-grinned Cheshire cat trapped in the body of a fit motorcycle-riding Midwesterner; we rarely make plans, but he always appears when needed. For years they sang all over the city, often with our friend Eamon, a fun bully with a fuzzy dark beard.
Before joining Karaoke Club, I was a self-conscious, uptight party-pooper-eoker. When I was 20, my brother had a karaoke-themed graduation party at Kay’s Fish Market, a tiny Korean neighborhood store in Petersburg, Virginia, near where we grew up, that served lunches of rice, kimchi, kongnamul, and sigeumchi namul with spicy, aromatic stewed fish. My umma and all her friends sang English songs in their Korean accents, piecing together broken syllables to form full sentences. They danced, lifting one sandaled foot into the air, waving their hands, and shaking their old-lady butts left to right. I sat cross-armed and cross-legged, contorting my body to state the obvious: I’m cool, and y’all are, like, totally dweebs.
I said no to everyone who ever brought up karaoke again. Who wants to humiliate themselves in public by performing a terrible rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee”? I would never subject myself to that kind of discomfort. And let’s face it: Since I turned 15, my voice has sounded like Clint Eastwood’s would if he ripped a long bong hit.
In 2011, I visited Japan for a month with five other Chicagoans through a Rotary International exchange program. Our days were filled with meetings where we struggled to communicate. Occasionally, our Japanese counterparts forced us into tiny private rooms in high-rises to sing karaoke. I hated it at first, but it turned out that while we were all limited in speaking the other’s language, we all were fluent in Beatles lyrics. This proved most valuable when I stood naked under a Hyatt Regency bathrobe with a teammate singing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” in an attempt to cheer distraught Rotarians hours after Japan experienced its strongest-ever earthquake.
Still, when Bounce and Ray started Karaoke Club, I attended only to support my friends, and because it reminded me of Japan. Lingering was my I’m-too-cool attitude, so I stood at the back of the bar like Khloé Kardashian, reapplying lipstick, checking the highlighter on my cheeks, and occasionally snapping a photo for the ’gram. I watched my friends with admiration as they stood at the mic and belted out their best party songs. I enjoyed seeing a roomful of strangers drop what they were doing to yell-sing, “But I would walk 500 miles …” Soon I found myself singing along, too.
The first time I braved the stage alone was after Eamon started a business called Pop Up Karaoke. At first he would set up on street corners and city parks, then eventually he booked nights at Carol’s Pub, High Dive, and Konak. When Eamon’s gigs and Karaoke Club meet-ups line up, we often trek to his events. Eamon is a master when it comes to making you believe in yourself. He pumps the room full of energy, arranges sets to allow newbies to take a turn, and, when you’re done, sends you off with a cute sticker that says “Great Job!” It was with his encouragement that I finally committed and sang “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by the Georgia Satellites while delivering an incredible air guitar solo.
Once, Bounce texted me that it was Madonna Night at Alice’s, a long-standing karaoke bar in Avondale. I surprised myself by scrambling through my closet to piece together a “Like a Virgin” bride outfit. When I arrived, I was greeted by Kimono Madonna, A League of Their Own Madonna, and the classic Borderline Madge. Instinctively, we knew that certain songs could only be sung by that era’s Madonna, and no one dared to bring up the time she dated Vanilla Ice. We clapped and jumped around like an impromptu choir during “Like a Prayer,” and later we settled down by rocking slowly to Borderline Madonna singing “Crazy for You.” That was the night I finally admitted (to myself, at least) that I had fallen in love with karaoke.
When the pandemic hit, we gathered online for Quarantine-eoke and Stay-at-Home-eoke. My husband and I centered ourselves onscreen shoulder to shoulder, crystal rocks glasses in hand. Several Karaoke Club regulars, confined to tiny rectangles on my screen like the opening of The Brady Bunch, wore headphones with cords to capture their voices or had their own microphones. My heart melted as Bounce sang Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window” while leaning her head against her office window.
We finally returned in person last Halloween at Trader Todd’s, a karaoke bar on Sheffield Avenue in Lake View. I was unsettled by the evasive public health guidelines about what was safe to do and what was not, but I needed to see everyone, so I put on my beard and John Wick suit and hit the whirring fan of my husband’s inflatable dog costume. When we walked through the door, immediately the hugs started. Karaoke, more than anything else, restored my sense of normalcy.
At the end of the night, I watched a group of college kids sing Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” inching my way closer to the stage. They were exploding with energy, and I was envious that I never let myself have that kind of fun when I was their age.
I smiled, my head buzzing from well bourbon. It may not have been love at first sight (or sing), but karaoke had given me so much: a community, an escape, the courage to put my bare hand in a public toilet. It had opened up a world where you can lose yourself so deeply that there’s no way to keep your feet on the ground.