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We are the Stars

By Kim Mellen

There is a legend of a karaoke bar somewhere in East Texas that has a Gong Show-style 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 about respect.

 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.

"Why would 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.

"My higher 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.

Austin's 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 gay-friendly. But the real question here, of course, is: Are those queens in Houston karaoke-friendly?

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