Karaoke scene at D.C. bars gets competitive

The karaoke team beamed for the flashing cameras, clinging to the physical manifestation that all the hard work was worth it: palm-size trophies in the shape of golden microphones.

For 10 Mondays, this group of eight amateur singers dubbed “The More We Drink, the Better You Sound” had belted louder, crooned sweeter and wiggled smoother than five other teams in a competitive karaoke league at a bar in the District’s Penn Quarter.

“We are just into performance and we love to win,’’ said Clinton Canady IV, 31, the captain of the team. “All of us had a background in music or sang with choirs, and now we have an outlet in D.C. to express ourselves. We take it seriously, even though it seems ridiculous.”

Except it isn’t. For a parable on the changing culture of the city, one only needs to peer into places where young professionals, who have fueled the city’s growth, choose to play.

Their social worlds are becoming increasingly occupied by diversions run on cheap beer and frivolous thrills — there are leagues for storytelling, kickball, bocce and trivia. Now, karaoke is the latest play date to become colonized by competition.

By the league’s second 10-week season, which ended this month, the number of competitors had more than tripled. There were 152 singers and 19 teams, spread over three days.

Jesse Rauch founded District Karaoke in February, apparently giving Washington the nation’s second such league, after Austin. He thought it might be a relaxing romp for an uptight city. Then teams started using puppets. And props. And practicing late at night. And scouting competition.

It became a grown-up mash-up of “Glee” and “The Hunger Games.”

“This is what happens when you have young, single people with Type A personalities,’’ said Mary Alice Farina, 31, who competes with the team “Naughty by Nurture.” “So we compete. It’s not really about the winning; it’s about having fun. But the competition is the fun.

“And our biggest competition is Clinton’s team.”

Canady reflected on his squad’s first season last winter with a tinge of bitterness. “The More We Drink” placed third in a competition judged by the audience.

“Third place,” he said caustically. “We thought we should have won because we were the better singers, or at least come in second. But the other teams brought all their friends.”

Canady lobbied to add nonpartisan judges. And he wooed other singers to his team.

It worked. After winning in the Monday league, the team was set to compete in the citywide championship earlier this month, with two solo rounds and a group performance.

The final battle was in seven days.

On the Sunday before the competition, group members sat around a dinner table in Columbia Heights to strategize.

No ballads, they declared.

Canady got approval to rap a popular Jay-Z and Kanye West song, with a potentially offensive song title diluted to “Ninjas in Paris.” He would perform the song while wearing in-line skates.

In a secret ballot, the team voted that Margo Hope, a 58-year-old retail manager and the league’s oldest performer, should belt out “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” from the musical “Dreamgirls.”

For the group number, they begin to hum “Give Me Everything,” a 2011 pop tune about meeting a girl and dancing with her at a club.

Or maybe “Dynamite,” a 2010 pop tune about meeting a girl and dancing in a club?

Hope suggested using one of their old numbers: Usher’s “Yeah.” It’s about a girl meeting Usher at a club. They dance.

“I have some issues with this choice,’’ interrupted Abigail Collazo, 27, the team’s lead choreographer. “Shouldn’t we challenge ourselves?”

As a compromise, they altered, among other things, a move where everyone is on the ground and thrusts into the air when the vocalist sings “get low.”

“I don’t think it’s gonna work,’’ Collazo said.

The debate went on for 45 minutes. But the piece began to meld. They practiced nodding the word “Yeah” in sync.

They recorded the final run-through on an iPhone. The neighbors downstairs sent Collazo a text message.

“You guys sound awesome. Are you almost finished?”

Game on

The next night, more than 300 people crowded into Penn Social to watch the nine teams. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) greeted the audience and talked about competitive karaoke helping craft the District's identity as a world-class city. He was serious.

The battle was on. Farina, of “Naughty by Nurture,” strutted with a blond wig and a black lace top while performing a song by Madonna. Her teammate, an attorney, wowed the crowd by morphing into a shirtless rocker, with spiked black hair and a bone-thin frame, growling a Billy Idol song and jumping on a table.

Canady’s team seemed unfazed. The moment Hope began the “Dreamgirls” song, the crowd went silent. Canady skated through the lightning-fast lyrics of “Ninjas in Paris” without a pause.

Not all the performances were as entertaining. As another competitor crooned an off-tempo, off-key version of “Party in the USA,” no fewer than six people walked out.

“I can’t take this anymore,” one woman huffed.

As the group competition began, “Naughty by Nurture” took the stage. In black business suits, they performed a Boyz II Men classic, “Motown Philly,” trading microphones, dancing like windmills, huddling together to sing the bridges in harmonies.

And last came Canady’s group. Team members hung their heads and waited for the beat to drop. The lead vocalists were among the most on-tune all night. The “get low” move drew oohs from the crowd.

“We got this!” Canady said.

But they didn’t. And neither did “Naughty By Nurture.”

Third — again

After the votes were tallied, a team featuring a woman who had sung Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m The Only One” to Wells won the contest. The group’s name? “99 Problems, But a Pitch Ain’t One,” yet another altered version of a Jay-Z title.

For the second time in a row, “The More We Drink, The Better You Sound” settled for third.

Canady blamed himself. “The judges didn’t like the rapping,” he said. “I lost the competition for us.”

The team members told him they loved him.

“We all wanted you to do this rap because we believed in it,” Collazo said. “We have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Gathered in a circle, they extended their arms and stacked their hands. Raising them, they yelled the team motto: “Drinkers, drink up!”

More beer sounded good.

If you have a story idea about the Washington area at night, e-mail Robert Samuels.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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