The Karaoke Gods of Singapore
Table No. 12. Connor. ‘Shake it Off’ by Taylor Swift, I scribbled on the piece of paper provided.
It was my second night in Singapore with my shaggy Kiwi friend, Cameron. We were hoping to make it better than the last, which had consisted of a failed quest for cheap beer and an intimate relationship between Cameron and our hostel toilet sparked by a sketchy, variety meat dish in Little India.
We were on the outskirts of Chinatown in a dim karaoke bar slightly larger than a school bus. Cameron and I sat at a wooden table against a wall. Across the narrow aisle next to the bar, a television played melodramatic karaoke music videos. To the tables on our right sat a scraggly Indonesian man in jeans and a red shirt with a stretched, loose collar, and a potbellied Chinese businessman with coiffed hair.
Our waitress, wearing a dimpled smile and a black strapless dress, shuffled over in high heels with two beers and a small bowl of peanuts. She took the piece of paper, touching my shoulder, forearm and hand. I liked that. She let out a high pitched giggle and yelled, “He is singing Taylor Swift!” to the three other waitresses who were lingering about the Indonesian man’s table in tight dresses.
I smiled back and tried to flirt with her over the loud music. After an exchange of, “What?”, “What did you say?”, “Oh…wait, what?” she tottered away. I started to pop salty peanuts in my mouth. I was beginning to feel apprehensive about singing when Cameron muttered, “Damn.”
I followed his eyes to the businessman. He seemed really into the song. His lips were moving to the words. “That’s not the TV; that’s him.”
“No way,” I said.
Leaning back in his wooden chair, with a loosened tie and three large, empty Tiger beer bottles around him, he was crooning a Mandarin melody. His soul-deep voice accompanied the slow strumming of a guitar.
As he finished, the waitresses clapped and Cameron and I cupped our hands to our mouths and hollered. He chuckled abashedly and smiled as though he usually didn’t receive this attention for his talent. He handed the mic to the scraggly Indonesian man who looked like the type who would have no qualms visiting the masseuse across the street.
A suited gent playing a sleek grand piano in the middle of a raining street gradually appeared on the TV screen. Sombre piano notes filled the bar and the Indonesian man relaxed into his chair. He began to release layered, gravelly notes that sounded as if they gained texture by bouncing off the echoing walls of his cavernous torso.
Cameron’s eyes met mine, “Holy shit dude, this guy is really good too.”
“Yeah, he is,” I said. “Almost as good as the last guy.”
Shit, I realised. These guys aren’t messing around. They’re goddamn Karaoke Gods.
“Dude, Cameron, everyone is an amazing singer.” He heard what I left unsaid, “And we fucking blow.”
“I know,” he laughed with a smile. “Let’s do this.”
The Indonesian man serenaded the bar with one last heartfelt note, we clapped, the waitresses clapped, and he handed me the torch. The TV began to load TayTay and I broke convention. I stood up. I knew what was coming and couldn’t do it sitting down.
I looked down the narrow aisle. The businessman and the Indonesian man were smiling at me.
Here we go.
The catchy drum beat started, the cymbals came in, and a horn let out quick, deep bursts in time. My shoulders began to bob up and down. My knees began to bend. I swung one leg forward at a time, strutting down the aisle. I was smiling.
I sang, “I stay up too late.” That’s not good. “Got nothing in my brain.” God, I sound terrible.
I talked loudly into the mic, “That’s what people sa-a-ay mmhmm, that’s what people sa-a-ay mhm.” Someone stop me. My voice was the flat line on a heart rate monitor.
I spun at the door and bobbed back up the aisle. A waitress rapidly inched down the aisle in her silver pencil skirt and high heels. I danced toward her but she stared ahead and kept shuffling along.
“But I keep on cruising, won’t stop, can’t stop moving.” Self-awareness crept into my voice, producing tremors which boomed in my head and in the small bar. My shaky voice began to falter, and a cannonball rolled in my belly.
I had to flatten those tremors. They were created by a critical voice, more seductive than my own, that began whispering in my mind: “You fucking suck.” You know that voice. Its oily undertones float inconspicuously through the blue sky of your conscious, but eventually, they glide down and soundlessly dive into the clear waters of your subconscious, blackening them.
The only way I knew how to stop those tremors was to lean into whatever wrought the critical voice, and then disregard it. Shake it off.
“I never miss a beat, I’m lightning on my feet,” I sang a bit louder. I concentrated on my feet flashing back and forth under me. I twirled around at the end of the bar and immediately strutted back down the aisle.
“I’m dancing on my own, I make the moves up as I go.” I danced toward the pot-bellied businessman. His eyes remained on the TV. I danced toward the scraggly Indonesian man. His eyes didn’t leave his beer bottle. Damn. I boogied past the Karaoke Gods and toward Cameron. He was laughing and singing, and then I was laughing and singing. We grooved off of each other and I started to dance back down the aisle.
“Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate.” My hips popped like firecrackers.
“Heart breakers are gonna break, break, break, break.” The song was almost over and I busted my moves past the Karaoke Gods.
“I, I, I shake it off, shake it off, I, I, I shake it off, shake it off.”
The music waned and I pulled a Swift-inspired exit bow. At the entrance of the bar, crossing my ankles, spreading my arms, I bent in half, head held up, looking at the Karaoke Gods and waitresses.
They didn’t make eye contact.
Cover by Simon Saw Sunlight