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Who's Next?, 711 N. State: Ms. Crabby Chronicler hates to stay up late and go to nightclubs so she asked Mr. Smarty Pants and Ms. Savvy Leggings to help her get through the door of Chicago's newest karaoke bar, where people get onstage and sing along to prerecorded music-video tracks and pretend they are Madonna and Elvis Presley and Tony Bennett. Crabby knew that Smarty and Savvy would come in handy on this assignment because they know an abnormal amount about film, video, music, and literature.

Crabby, who thinks she knows everything before she even leaves the house, knew she was going to hate karaoke, which translates to "empty orchestra." She was convinced that the activity would be as vapid as its name, one more example of how artificial life had become. What's wrong with sitting around a piano? she wondered crabbily.

Karaoke started about 15 years ago with the eight-track tape in Japan, a country where, according to writer Ian Buruma, "The synthetic is traditionally favored over the organic, the miniature considered more beautiful than the original model." Today practically every corner bar in Japan has karaoke. The development of karaoke laser discs, which added pictures and song lyrics played on video monitors, has made it even more irrepressible. In Chicago the number of bars with karaoke equipment has gone from 14 to 60 in the last year and there's a local newsletter where people express their thoughts on karaoke.

Who's Next? was opened last year by Tommy Tamura, who also owns Cafe Shino, where rich businessmen and beautiful hostesses lounge around karaoke microphones and sing together. Crabby, Smarty, and Savvy arrived at about 11 PM on a Saturday night and sat down in gray upholstered chairs. Crabby tapped her foot and swayed to the music and watched American students and suburbanites bounce their heads together while they waited for their turn to sing "Material Girl," "Sugar, Sugar" ("You are my candy girl"), "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?" or one of the 1,097 other songs in the club's directory.

Crabby asked the owner Tommy if the Japanese sing any better than Americans. He said absolutely not. Mario, a waiter, said it's like working in a factory where you have to tune out the noise, though later he confessed that he likes to get up and sing the song from the movie Beaches--"Win a little, lose a little, maybe sing the blues a little"--but never before 10 PM. Tommy said he's too shy to sing.

A blond woman, wearing out-of-fashion pants from the early 80s (full at the hips and tight at the ankles), though she probably has a boyfriend who likes her very much, briefly gripped the audience by belting out "Mack the Knife." Savvy sipped her martini, which had an olive, and announced that she had not been allowed in glee club in third grade. Smarty said that he sang once in his life--in a karaoke bar during a recent trip to Taiwan, at a private party thrown by Taiwan's most famous filmmaker, but he said he only sang because karaoke is more equitable in Asia. "There's not the narcissism of the stage, no contests, no competition, and they pass around the microphone, which reduces the anxiety. There was a lot of cognac around."

On one of the club's six video monitors, skateboarders flashed across the screen under the words of the song "Walk This Way." Crabby announced that the videos made no contextual sense.

"In Taiwan, the song 'Johnny Guitar' was illustrated by gondolas in Venice," Smarty said. "I think the video is there to shut out other images, rather than to encourage the fantasy. It makes it more postmodern."

"These videos are so banal, so cheap," Savvy said. "I feel guilty when I look at the monitors because there's nothing to see." She looked out at the crowd. "The gender arrangements here are extremely conventional."

Crabby was about to say that karaoke is a symptom of cultural laziness--a perfect example of how people love to appropriate and readapt artistic expression that has already proven successful--when she heard a clear, controlled voice singing "Fools rush in . . . where angels fear to tread." She turned away from Smarty and Savvy and saw a Japanese man in an elegant suit who later said he works for Century 21. He stood on the stage and adjusted his shirt cuffs like Frank Sinatra and held his hand to his heart and then out to the crowd and Crabby realized that singing is the most direct verbal expression of emotion and the most appreciated in cultures where emotional expression is not encouraged. It finally dawned on her that karaoke equipment makes singing more fun for everybody and she stopped being crabby, for about five minutes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Bachtell.

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