My friend Maddie has a strong opinion that all karaoke songs should be limited to a verse and a chorus. You belt out the good stuff, your friends — ideally — clap, and then you sit down. It’s all over in a minute or so, tops. Anything longer and you run the risk of boring people. Or of boring yourself. Or of getting three-quarters of the way through a song and remembering it has a very long musical interlude you forgot about, and now you’re stuck standing there holding a microphone with no choice but to chug your beer to kill measures. This lesson is brought to you by the time I decided Céline Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” would be a good idea.
I am thinking about all this after dinner Monday evening as I consider what song I’m going to pick for a karaoke party that’s happening in an hour. Before you get out your megaphone, I will tell you that I am practicing social distancing from my apartment since being sent home from work earlier in March out of “an abundance of caution” — words that now pepper daily emails and news and my nightmares. Zoom is another word that’s achieved seemingly overnight ubiquity, as the video-chat platform has taken on new life as a vehicle for all sorts of human interactions: contract bargaining, birthday parties, happy hours, and therapy sessions via teleconference.
Which is how I stumbled upon Sarah Katz-Hyman and Anthony Ryan, two friends in the Bay Area who told me they bonded over a shared love of biking and karaoke and now try to organize a monthly singing event. It seemed to be a tradition that would fizzle out during the coronavirus pandemic. “We tried to do a karaoke night in February, but schedules didn’t mix. Then March happened,” Katz-Hyman tells me. “We were both thinking about [karaoke] yesterday and started texting.” They devised a plan to host a Zoom event instead.
When I ask to join, I’m sent a Google doc with instructions. The event requires using two different platforms. The first, Zoom, is where we’ll congregate and sing to each other. Guests are instructed to wear headphones and mute their microphones when not singing or talking to keep excess noise to a minimum. The other is Watch2Gether, a platform that allows people to stream videos at the same rate. (Picture two browser windows. In one is Zoom, in the other is a YouTube karaoke video running so you and your co-singers can all see the same lyrics in sync while also watching the videoconference.) Duets and costumes, the document notes, are encouraged.
There are a half-dozen people already chatting on Zoom when I arrive at 10:30. Everybody knows either Katz-Hyman or Ryan, but the rest of us are strangers to one another. It’s a little weird — under normal circumstances, it might make me feel anxious enough to skip out entirely — but everything is weird right now. I mute my laptop mic, and Katz-Hyman kicks things off with a performance of the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” with handheld microphone for dramatic effect. She gives it her all, and despite the audio lag and some glitching and a moment when she stands to dance and the camera lops off her head … it’s great. The Dixie Chicks rolls into Pulp’s “Common People” and then it’s my turn. My girlfriend and I have opted for Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”
Halfway through our impassioned performance — apologies to my neighbor — I get a DM from Katz-Hyman that my mic has stopped working. We’ve been dramatically pantomiming for the past two minutes. Technical difficulties fixed, we restart the track and do it all again. What else do we have to be doing? I find it’s most fun to watch the party in Zoom’s Brady Bunch–esque view, where everybody onscreen is in a small square in a grid, quilted together into a patchwork. Muted, we sing and dance along to each other performer’s song, a silent but enthusiastic hype team.
Over the course of the next hour and a half, ten or so people shuffle in and out of the party. More, if you count the roommates and spouses and pets who make cameos in the frame. I watch two of my fellow guests, Wiley and Courtney, perform a duet of “Loathing” from Wicked. “You’re a real Adele Dazeem,” Wiley, who takes the Galinda parts, tells Courtney when they finish. Katz-Hyman dons a makeshift wimple and does a number from Sister Act. Somebody suggests Rent, so we all belt out “La Vie Bohème.” (If you were wondering exactly what kind of person seeks out internet karaoke, this is a pretty good anecdotal distillation.) The real star of the evening is Lauren, who does Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” into a bottle of Clorox and then proceeds to carry us around her house on her phone while getting ready for bed, blow-drying her hair on-camera while other people sing. She’s in Washington, D.C., where it’s getting quite late.
Katz-Hyman and Ryan aren’t the only ones whose brains turned to karaoke amid the ongoing crisis. Dustin Senos built “Karaoke Camp,” a site that, using Zoom, lets anybody drop in and sing a tune, 24 hours a day. “I was scrolling around on the Twitter and saw how folks in Italy are combating isolation and the weight of COVID by singing in the streets,” Senos told me. “As more of us who are fortunate to have the option to work from home are, I was thinking about what I could do to maybe create that myself, or at least give the option for randoms to connect online.” Unlike Katz-Hyman and Ryan’s event, Karaoke Camp uses a playlist of 36,000 top karaoke songs, so you’ve got to sing whatever is in front of you.
After Lauren goes to bed, another woman, Alicia, logs on and requests “You Oughta Know.” Nobody tells her it’s a repeat because, again, what else do we have to be doing right now? There’s Taylor Swift and Black Sabbath and ABBA and then it’s midnight and we’re singing “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire to close things down. (Ryan suggests “Closing Time,” and then, as we all groan, insists he was kidding.) I’m surprised at how quickly the time has passed.
Katz-Hyman proposes making this a regular Monday event. I’m grateful for the evening’s distraction as I pick up my phone to see a news alert blaring grim disease statistics. It feels a little like we’re all living in the musical interlude of a too-long karaoke track. On hold until the screen tells us what to do next. Waiting, waiting, waiting.