Like so many other things, his birthday bash this year fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic, as the District’s karaoke bars — like many around the country — have remained silent since March. “These days, I haven’t found much of a solution for karaoke,” Gozum says. “I’m mainly singing in the car, or singing as I do household chores.”
It may be a long time before Gozum, or anyone else, belts out a favorite song in a crowded room again.
For months, public health officials have been warning about the dangers of going to bars: They’re indoor spaces, they frequently have poor air circulation, and after a few drinks, people tend to lean in close during conversations or put their arms around their besties, all while forgetting to wear their masks.
But if bars are dangerous during a pandemic, karaoke is even worse, regardless of what form it takes.
In Asia, the most popular is room karaoke (called noraebang in Korea), where a small group rents a private room; in America, because we are show-offs, the best-known style involves singing loudly in a bar in front of friends and strangers. A fun way to spend a night on the town has become a raging cocktail of everything epidemiologists tell us to avoid: Gathering in groups, passing around a microphone that’s potentially covered in virus-covered respiratory droplets, and most of all, singing.
The dangers of singing in public were laid bare in March at a church choir practice in Skagit, Wash. Only one of the 61 attendees at the two-hour rehearsal was known to be symptomatic, but 53 would end up testing positive for the coronavirus, and two members died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the act of singing “might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization.”
Public health guidelines in California specifically prohibit karaoke, along with open-mic nights and pub crawls. In June, Nashville delayed moving to Phase 3 of its reopening, which would have allowed karaoke bars, after a spike in cases. There’s no timetable for karaoke to return in the District; nightclubs are still closed and bars are limited to 50 percent capacity.
“To quote Elton John, I think it’s gonna be a long, long time until we get karaoke as we know it back,” says Andrew Kim, a 32-year-old litigator who’s picked up a microphone at every major karaoke bar in the D.C. area during his 15 years here. He prefers singing in front of a crowd to noraebang: “To me, the magic of karaoke is meeting a group of strangers and bonding over someone’s terrible rendition of ‘Country Roads,’ ” he says. “For those of us who aren’t in the performing arts, it’s a chance to have to take the stage, have an audience and leave an impression.”
He’s tried singing online, with Facebook groups or apps, but it just didn’t feel right. “Some people want to sing for the sake of singing, and some people, like me, do it to connect with an audience. There is just something to a live performance that can’t be replicated on an app.”
Jesse Rauch hears that a lot. In 2012, Rauch founded District Karaoke, a competitive karaoke league where teams face off each week using props, costumes and choreography, as well as their voices. (Yes, Washington, a city obsessed with competition, has turned karaoke into something on the level of performance kickball.) It’s now grown into United Karaoke, with leagues in Chicago, Toronto, Baltimore and Los Angeles, and hundreds of “players” registered. “The pandemic has been really hard,” Rauch says. “It’s not just one social group. We had a family of people who were coming to sing with us. They’d found their partners, they found their pods.”
District Karaoke also runs noncompetitive karaoke nights across the city, and even if bars were to reopen tomorrow, he’s not sure what would happen. “We polled our performers, and a majority say they won’t feel safe singing until there’s a proven vaccine,” Rauch says. Still, that hasn’t stopped members from proposing all kinds of safety measures to get karaoke up and running again: What if there were plastic screens in front of singers? What about disposable microphone covers? What if the audience submitted songs electronically so they didn’t have to come up to the DJs? What if everyone just promised to wear masks and sit six feet apart?
“I love that these people believe so much in the power of karaoke,” Rauch says.
In the meantime, District Karaoke runs its own virtual karaoke sessions on Zoom, with 35 to 40 people joining for three-and-a-half hours of singing on Thursday nights. “Some people say they’ve been really struggling, and this is an outlet to help feel connected,” he says, though he knows it’s not the same.
Live band karaoke, which features a full band performing backing tracks for singers, is nearly impossible to replicate online. When bars shut down in March, the 10-year-old HariKaraoke Band — D.C.’s best-known karaoke band, which has a songbook running from Abba to ZZ Top — was playing three to five shows a week, including weddings and corporate gigs. But none were bigger than its Wednesday night residency at Hill Country Barbecue Market in Penn Quarter, where a line of 20-somethings waited to get into the basement concert hall.
“We’ve turned this into a party,” HariKaraoke band founder and drummer Kenny Lewis says. “The majority of the people don’t sing. They come for laughing, the socializing — they drink and sing along, and they look forward to the next song.”
That, he thinks, is why karaoke can’t return until there’s a vaccine, or for a while afterward. “Who’s going to want to sing on a microphone?” he says. “We could wipe it down, and you could wear a mask. When it’s loud, you have to shout, and that’s going to spread germs.” With capacity restrictions or other safely measures, “we wouldn’t draw the partyers who want to hang out and have a good time and try to pick up and everything they do at Hill Country.”
As much as the singing, it’s the loss of that kind of environment — friendly, encouraging, rowdy — that concerns Carla Jean Lauter, a writer from Portland, Maine.
“The places that host the best karaoke — the underfunded, intimate spaces or the rowdy, not-really-classy bars — are also at the most risk of not surviving this crisis financially in the first place,” says Lauter, who finds catharsis in taking the stage as well as singing along when she’s sitting in the audience.
Like others, she tried singing online, but missed the crowd joining in on the chorus of “Me and Bobby McGee.” So she’s going to wait.
“Some of those who don’t do karaoke don’t quite understand why I’m so sad about this loss,” she says. “It was a rare time where you could enter a room full of strangers and make them smile, sing and dance with you,” without worrying about what you do for a living. “I just hope maybe we can hold on to the idea for a long enough time to bring it back someday.”