Why the first thing you should do when the pandemic is over is karaoke

Karaoke is a health hazard right now, but writer Mel Woods longs for the nights singing on a bar’s stage. Woods believes that when the pandemic ends, karaoke would be a great way to celebrate the beginning of a new era.

Karaoke is the perfect poster child of all that we’ve missed during the pandemic, says writer

Mel Woods says it was “pure joy” singing a karaoke version of the B-52’s Rock Lobster at 2:00 a.m in a bar in Berlin, Germany pre-pandemic. (Submitted by Mel Woods)

When the pandemic ends, the first thing writer Mel Woods plans to do is hit the stage for some karaoke.

Concerns around spreading COVID-19 has made conventional karaoke essentially impossible. The act of people singing in an enclosed space has the potential to be a superspreader event and is therefore currently not recommended. 

People have come up with alternatives like Zoom karaoke, where people sing into their laptop during a video call. Or putting YouTube karaoke videos on your television and singing for roommates and loved ones. But nothing matches the feeling of belting out your favourite track to an audience of people in an enclosed space of mildly inebriated adults.

Woods has been thinking a lot about karaoke since the first lockdowns were implemented across Canada. They wrote about the sense of freedom and sheer joy karaoke can provide in an article in The Walrus titled "This Pandemic Isn't Over until Everybody Sings."

Woods talked to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about what karaoke provides for the soul and why people are missing singing on stage, even if they aren't particularly good singers. Here is part of their conversation.

I think you've nailed something about karaoke - that talent is perhaps not an absolute requirement. But commitment is. Tell me how you commit when it's your turn.

Despite loving music and loving performance in high school, I used to notice that I was never cast in the school musicals for some reason — despite my enthusiasm! And it's probably because I'm a horrible singer, just very tone deaf. But I think that when it comes to karaoke, as long as you're having fun, that's what matters. And that's what people respond to whether that's dancing across the stage doing a silly move, interacting with the audience, doing call and response. I think that's so much more what karaoke is about than perfectly nailing every note.

One of my favorite things about karaoke is that you get to kind of leave, to a certain extent, gender at the door.- Mel Woods

You've written about your last karaoke moment, pre-pandemic. This was in Berlin to the showstopper, the B-52's Rock Lobster. And the way you tell that story, you have never felt more alive. Can you tell me a little bit about that feeling? What does it feel like to you when you're really alive?

Rock Lobster is such a silly song because the lyrics are all about lobsters and putting on suntan lotion and doing the twist and being on the beach. It's very silly. It does not have a lot of depth of meaning to it. That means you could just have fun with it. 

At this karaoke bar that I went to in Berlin in January 2020 called Monster Ronson Ichiban Karaoke Bar, I sang the song at like two in the morning. It was a really full crowd. It was also a queer bar, which was really exciting for me as a queer person. There was a stripper pole in the middle of the stage and just spinning around that and singing about like catfish and dogfish and "a bikini whale!" to this crowd of people who are complete strangers who didn't even speak English. A lot of them had never heard that song before.

It was really just kind of such a cool moment of being, like, I'm doing this thing. I'm living in this moment. I'm spinning around this thing. There's a part in the song where it goes "Down! Down! Down!" I'm like doing a backbend into the crowd. It's truly just pure joy.

Part of the joy I think is in either trying on a different identity or maybe unleashing a part of your own identity that doesn't always get to come out and play. So can you tell me about a time karaoke put you in touch with some aspect of who you are?

One of my favourite things about karaoke is that you get to kind of leave, to a certain extent, gender at the door, right? For your four minutes and 30 seconds, you are Bruce Springsteen and everything that comes with being Bruce Springsteen. And that's so exciting to me — turning traditionally heterosexual love songs into gay ballads. I think all of that stuff, and the performativity of it, is just so fun being able to kind of warp people's expectations and turn how they're perceiving you into something completely different.

So one element of who you are might be revealed if I happen upon a metal show, in Berlin, one glorious 2020 pre-March. Tonight, what would I learn about you? 

I think that I don't take myself too seriously. I think a lot of the people who know me professionally. And I think often about doing karaoke with coworkers for the first time. You see people in this buttoned up certain way. And even just the choice of songs that they choose. People would look at me and everything I am and be like, "Oh, my favourite karaoke song is Rock Lobster. That's a choice." And I think that you get to see kind of a weirder, an exciting and more interesting side.

That's an interesting point. Because the buttoned up less weird [feeling] is often what we feel we have to put on as part of the game face at work.

I think it is. And I think that that's a huge barrier for a lot of people who are starting trying to do karaoke where they say, "Oh, I'm really nervous about how people are going to perceive me. I'm nervous about being a bad at singing, or I'm not gonna do a good job or something." And I think when you can kind of let yourself let that go and leave it at the door is when you have the most fun and the people you're with have the most fun. It's magical.

Woods' friend Kylie prepares to sing karaoke at Funky Winker Beans, a karaoke bar in Vancouver's Gastown. (Mel Woods)

You've had some life milestones marked by music. Can you tell me about a time karaoke was there for you, as your life changed in some way as you reach some milestone?

When I first moved to Vancouver to go to grad school, my friends and I from school started going to this bar called Funky Winker Beans here — which was a converted punk metal bar into a karaoke bar. They did karaoke every single night at 9pm till like 3am. And it ruled. 

That became a really defining thing during the course of grad school. And so, on our convocation day when we all graduated from UBC, it was unquestionable that we'd be going to Funkies afterwards. So we did the convocation and with our parents and our dinners, and everything. And then still in our formal wear, we all went to the Downtown Eastside to this dirty bar, in like full suits. I was wearing a cherry red suit, with our parents, some of us to just do karaoke and be together in that moment. And it was such a wonderful capper to my experience of being in grad school to spend that night, in that place with those people. And also to be able to open it up to the people that we loved and how seeing people's parents watch them do karaoke at Funkies was one of the most wholesome, wonderful things I've ever experienced.

Karaoke, of course, would be a really bad idea right now. I'm wondering whether that makes you all the more wistful right now. The activity you're pining for is particularly forbidden right now. Does that make you miss it more? 

Definitely. There's a lot of things that are pandemic unsafe that we can find ways to do in our lives, like getting together with friends over Zoom for drinks or things like that. But Zoom karaoke does not hit the same because so much of karaoke is about being in that room, and the energy and the crowd and the sweat and the visceralness of it. And you just can't get that at home. So I think that that's made it more wistful as knowing that none of the alternatives are going to be sufficient. Because [karaoke] encapsulates so many of those things that are such a bad idea right now, it makes it kind of a perfect poster child of the thing I will do when this is over — this thing that I haven't been allowed to do for the last two years.

Written and produced by Arman Aghbali.


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