By Kim Mellen
is a legend of a karaoke bar somewhere in East Texas that has a Gong
setup in which the bartender can gong the really toe-curling,
butt-cringing bad singers off the stage. One man began to mangle
"Hotel California," and the bartender chimed in with his
party-pooping death knell. The man, not getting it, kept singing. The
bartender banged again. A few audience members saw what was going on,
and began to sing along. Loudly. Soon the whole bar joined in,
drowning out the repeated gongs from the naysaying bartender. Moral
of the story? Well, yes, weird things happen when the Eagles are
involved in any way; but the real lesson here is that karaoke is all
This is only
a legend because institutionalized jeering is unheard of within the
karaoke community -- ask anyone. Granted, karaoke has its detractors.
It's not a legitimate musical form, the complaint goes. It's too
cheesy. Too scary.
anyone want to listen to bad songs sung badly?" These people
whine. "As if."
This is the first
and last time these concerns will be addressed: Karaoke is not
only not an insidious scourge upon the arts -- an embarrassment to
the embarrassments of musical history -- to the growing international
army of Just Plain Folk who revere it, karaoke is a great equalizer,
a chance to be a star, if only for three minutes. For them -- for us
-- karaoke is everything that music should be, and our devotion is
almost religious in nature.
power is people singing in unison," muses Bruce, karaoke host
and owner of Barnstormers, a studio-store that also rents karaoke
equipment with or without attendant hosts. Nothing, he contends,
matches the power of karaoke when it comes to bringing people
together. He's hosted shows at kicker bars -- "the kind of
places cowboys go to look for fights" -- but once he turns on
the machine, "It's peace in the valley." It gets punk kids,
war vets, and rich golfer-types, the whole gamut of races and
classes, to make idiots of themselves ... together. Groups who begin
the evening on opposite sides of the bar are soon one big
conga-lining, stage-diving, dueting melee. "It's a beautiful
thing," he insists.
hands-down karaoke Mecca, the Common Interest, truly lives up to its
vaguely utopian name: Of all the karaoke venues in town, it has the
least definable crowd. There are black, white, and brown people, gay
and straight people, junior and senior citizens. What, though, do the
words "The Common Interest" mean to the people who run it
and live it? The object of their desire can't be just karaoke; the
Interest's original incarnation -- over two decades ago on Medical
Parkway -- was a piano bar (which, arguably, is a close cousin of the
karaoke experience). Whatever it is: singing, drunkenness, sex, it's
open to poetic interpretation. "It's a place where anyone can
feel like a star," Karaoke Jockey (or KJ) Michael Koury
postulates. "People tend to love the applause and affection from
the crowd. People that need attention come in here because the
audience is usually very nice, and if they're not I throw them
out." Koury began his employment at the Interest as bouncer, so
be nice. The KJ manager Mike Stevens also waxes sentimental, likening
his realm and the barflies within to Cheers.
"We have a very strong family relationship here. Through all
the booze and egos, we all really love each other."
Incidentally, there's a gay bar in Houston also called the Common
Interest, so the CI in Austin gets many inquiries as to whether
there's an association. There isn't, says Stevens, but the Austin
Common Interest is
But the real question here, of course, is: Are those queens in
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