Karaoke’s very much the same the world over. A succession of people take turns getting up and singing familiar songs to prerecorded accompaniment. Some brim with confidence, while others are so timid as to not dare to take their eyes off the TV monitor off which one reads the lyrics; commonly, the most confident ones are those with the least sense of pitch. Often there’s somebody with a great big powerhouse voice who sings a great big powerhouse song in such a way as to demand, “Can you believe that I’m here singing karaoke while Katy friggin’ Perry is performing for the crowned heads of Europe?” Invariably, there’s a 70-year-old man who wants to do “Mack the Knife” or Sinatra’s “My Way”. Given enough alcohol, it can be a reasonably amusing way to spend an hour or two.
While many aspects of the experience are identical the world over, there are subtle differences in different places to which you may fly. When I was in Lanzarote with my bride, a one-time punk chanteuse who sounds a little bit like Chrissie Hynde, and who just adores karaoke, the audience at our hotel bar frowned in confusion at her choice of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” to perform, but yelped in exultation when one of their own interpreted some ghastly oom-pah number of the sort that used to dominate the annual Eurovision song contest.
In Albufeira, Portugal, in the Algarve, a contingent of English tourists made their displeasure very clear when I had the zany idea of performing The Sex Pistols’ fervently irreverent “God Save the Queen”. Said one of them, at song’s end, “I think maybe you’d better go now, mate.” Everybody’s a critic! His biceps were as big around as my head, and I have a large-ish head, and I realized I was indeed very tired.
But we went back the next night — I with strict orders from my bride to try not to make anyone furious — and beheld the coolest karaoke singer I think I’ve ever seen. That he and his date seemed intent on spending as much of the evening as possible with their tongues down each other’s throats struck me as remarkable in view of the fact that when they did briefly pull apart, it was invariably to light a fresh cigarette. (Kim Basinger on kissing her chainsmoking co-star Mickey Rourke in “9-1/2 Weeks”, “Like putting my tongue in an ashtray.”) When the DJ called his name, the guy couldn’t have been seemed more indifferent. He got himself a fresh cigarette, kissed his girlfriend, sent a brief text message on his mobile phone, kissed his girlfriend again, and only then slid off his stool and walked up to the stage to accept the microphone from the DJ. He sang that Bryan Adams song from Robin Hood that was No. 1 in the UK for a million weeks in a row, and sang it well; the cigarettes had given his voice exactly the right raspiness.
In Tunisia, I sang Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Flowers in Your Hair)”, the unofficial anthem of the Summer of Love. The audience were no less befuddled than by my bride’s earlier choice of “Wuthering Heights”. I can’t be sure if that had anything to do, given that Islam is the official state religion, with the only alcohol on offer being red wine.