Thu, Jul 15, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Karaoke spawningaddicts in New York

With a taste for the intoxicating sensation of breezing through a cheesy song to the jeers and cheers of one's friends, the young and hip are turning to Japan's most infamous export

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , New York

Performers at the Lansky Lounge on New York's Lower East Side have included David Lee Roth. This truly odd moment -- a rock star performing a karaoke version of his own recording -- was part of a reawakened interest among New York hipsters in the sing-along pastime imported from Japan.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

On a Saturday night not long ago, an actress from Queens celebrated her 26th birthday by singing Avril LaVigne's hit Don't Tell Me at Muse Karaoke on New York City's West 21st Street. A short cab ride away at Village Karaoke in Cooper Square, all 16 private suites were booked and James Brown's Sex Machine could be heard blaring from a roomful of young women wearing Mardi Gras beads.

Around midnight at Sing Sing on the Lower East Side, a French woman and two blond models nursed cocktails while hipsters in thrift store T-shirts sang Metallica. And by 2am, the red leather booths at Winnie's in Chinatown included magazine editors, actresses, investment bankers -- and Celeste Pillow.

Pillow, 23, a jewelry-maker, summed up the attractions of amateur singing: "Karaoke is as bad as it gets, but that's why it's good."

After three seasons of American Idol, Bill Murray's sing-a-long during Lost in Translation and spending 20 years as an extra in the drama of New York night life, karaoke is suddenly enjoying a second wave of popularity.

Old Asian haunts are more crowded with English-speaking customers. Rentals of karaoke equipment at one leading East Coast distributor have jumped fivefold since 2001 and there is no sign of dwindling interest.

Thousands, if not millions, of karaoke tracks are being traded illegally online. Those in the karaoke business nationwide predict that the business will grow by about 10 percent each year as the industry switches from CDs to digital databases holding up to 90,000 songs.

New private rooms with huge digital collections are popping up all over the city.

Karaoke goes political

Dozens of bars, restaurants and lounges in New York have also started offering karaoke one or more nights a week. The Apollo Theater in Harlem will have its first karaoke night on July 23, and a well-heeled couple in Chelsea is even planning a Kerry-oke fund-raiser this month for Senator John Kerry's bid for the Democratic Party nomination to run in the US presidential election.

Clearly, given the demographics, this is not the karaoke of crazy drunken uncles who worship Neil Diamond, nor is it the more studied karaoke first pioneered by Japanese businessmen. Instead, it is more akin to the swing-dancing craze of the 1990s -- a form of urban group expression that satisfies a longing for community. In other words, karaoke is hot because it is a cheap, team activity.

"Japanese singers like to sing alone to show off their voice," said Mike Toshi Kida, the owner of Sing Sing, Village Karaoke and four other karaoke locations on the East and West Coasts. "Americans like to sing together, loud, chorus style and with dancing."

This is the case wherever televised lyrics can be found, in private rooms, at bars and at parties. When the song choice is anything from Bon Jovi or Madonna, it is often hard to tell who is actually singing, which is exactly how many fans like it.

Karaoke etiquette holds that skill matters less than passion.

"My favorite performers are the ones who suck but really put their heart into it; it's better that way," said Samantha Ronson, a singer who recently cut a debut album after being the karaoke hostess at Moomba in the West Village in the late 1990s. It has since closed.

Somehow, fans at several locations said, karaoke helps people connect. Katy Finnin, 29, between songs at Duet Karaoke in Midtown, explained the social setting by noting that "everyone is equal." Kimberly Mulvaney, 26, an actress from Queens who sings in both bars and private rooms, said that karaoke also encouraged conversation. "It's not like a party where if you don't know anyone, you end up in the corner," she said. "With karaoke, there's camaraderie."

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