Where else? We sing the national anthem at baseball games. We sing our colleges’ fight songs at reunions. We sing “If I Had a Hammer” sotto voce while hammering in the morning.
But for the vast majority of humans, our singing takes place—if we sing at all—in odd, jerry-rigged circumstances: in the shower, where the acoustics of bathroom tiles make us more closely resemble the resonant, confident singers we wish we were; in the car, where we can crank up the radio’s volume loud enough that we can barely hear ourselves at all. And maybe, once every couple of years, we get drunk enough to agree to karaoke, where we ambitiously submit to the KJ “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and then, an hour later, arm in arm with three friends, massacre it.
What does it take for you to cut loose and sing? For some it requires total privacy. Sometimes alcohol helps, or despair. My colleague Aisha Harris has proposed in Slate that her presence as a black person at all-white events seems to make white people feel they have permission to perform. I have a friend who swore up and down she’d never, ever sing karaoke who then, emboldened by a private room populated only by friends, cut loose with a note-perfect version of “Ignition (Remix).” The first time I ever got up the nerve to sing karaoke, it was in a room full of older comedians I desperately wanted to impress—or, rather, comedians in front of whom I didn’t want to look chicken.
How safe do you have to feel to sing in public? How dangerous does singing in public have to feel before it thrills you? What if you’re invisible? What if your friends sing with you? What if you don’t even know what song you’re going to sing?
Reporting a story on the fertile karaoke scene in Portland, I encountered four friends who performed what they called “scaryoke”: going up onstage with no idea what song was coming up, as it had been picked by your friends and submitted without your consent. I still remember the joyful surprise with which one of the group greeted the opening chords of Donna Fargo’s chipper 1972 hit “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA,” as the other three members of her group danced like backup singers behind her. It was a pure performative moment: a song sung as a matter of survival, chosen without pretext or dick-measuring intent, picked by friends for a friend with the specific intent of giving her a good time. It’s that feeling of unfettered pleasure I’m attempting to recreate—or at least interrogate—in SCARYOKE!!!.
Depending on which of our singing environments you choose—the private shower, the semipublic car, or the karaoke stage—other visitors will be able to see you a little, a lot, or not at all. You can sing by yourself or with a friend or a group of friends or however many strangers you can stuff into the shower with you. With the help of John Brophy, KJ and creator of the amazing Baby Ketten Karaoke in Portland, I’ve chosen 15 tracks specifically for the variety of challenges they offer singers. There’s classic rock, hip-hop, contemporary pop, indie rock, punk, country, and more. Songs range from seven-minute epics to an under-three-minute nugget of pop perfection. You won’t know what song is going to start playing when you press that button. But they’re all fun to sing—that’s my guarantee as your friend.
And as your friend I’m also urging you forward, even though you’re nervous. You’ve never sung in front of people before? Give it a try! You don’t know all the songs that well? Sing ’em anyway! Embrace your fear. Find your light. Sing like everyone’s listening.
SCARYOKE!!! at apexart, 291 Church St., New York. Nov. 7 through Dec. 21. Hours vary; see website for more information.