It was 12:30 a.m. at Upstairs Bar, and Rena, resplendent in a leopard-print top that strained across her broad shoulders, had just bought us a round of Jäger shots. I do not like Jäger shots, but Rena is the owner, and when she’s pouring, you’re drinking. Behind us, a glassy-eyed Spaniard warbled ungracefully through George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” but it didn’t matter how off-key he sounded; unbeknownst to him, Rena cut his mic 20 minutes ago.
Upstairs Bar is a second-floor karaoke joint in Manhattan’s Chinatown, above one of those budget bus operations whose vehicles occasionally bursts into flames mid-route. The place used to be a bona-fide shithole—one open room with a vague tropical motif, drinks by the bucket and couches with powdery plastic drug baggies shoved between the seat cushions. It felt like a soul sister to Winnie’s, one of the city’s longest-running and most beloved* karaoke dives until it closed last year. Winnie’s was “famous” for a few things: a limited karaoke selection that was housed entirely on LaserDiscs, a drink called Hawaiian Punch that involved eight liquors, including crème de banane and amaretto and a dark past as the site of several gang-related shootouts in the early-1990s.
A few months ago, shortly after Winnie’s closed, Rena decided it was time to clean up the place: The couches were banished, the bar extended, the tiki vibe replaced with a more “sophisticated” sports bar aesthetic. There’s still open-room karaoke fueled by a surprisingly passable cocktail menu, but I learned the hard way during a recent post-renovation visit that the unhinged thrill of singing to strangers inside a dimly lit, grime-caked dive is gone. For that, however, you can still go to Planet Rose in the East Village, which has plenty of dingy animal-print sectionals and drunk NYU students chanting along to Weezer.
I have friends who ardently avoid the open-room setup at Upstairs Bar and Planet Rose. That’s just fine—there are dozens of karaoke bars in New York, some slick and some scuzzy, some private and others public. Hundreds more have disappeared into the ether, but karaoke itself remains death-proof: No matter how uncool it may seem, there will always be a market for activities that provide a respite from the career pressures, breakneck pace and occasional crippling loneliness of life in the city—and now, perhaps more than ever, karaoke feels like a relevant act of liberation.
I can’t begrudge Upstairs Bar for changing with the times. Karaoke itself a relatively recent phenomenon, invented in Japan in 1971 by a near-broke musician whose other patents included a cockroach-killing machine. It took off in Asia but was slow to take root in the U.S. One of the earliest mentions I could find was this 1986 article in the New York Times profiling the handful of Japanese karaoke bars that had opened in New York in the mid-1980s (“For a business type like myself, when you sing loudly, it is a solution to stress,” explained one happy customer). The first known English-language karaoke night debuted in New York in 1987 at a now-shuttered Chinatown restaurant called Lotus Blossom. Later that year, Mindy Birnbaum and Donald Zuckerman, a founder of the Ritz nightclub, opened Singalong in Chelsea, one of the first karaoke bars to use then-cutting-edge Japanese AV technology that displayed lyrics on a screen in real time.
A few years later, America was well on its way to peak karaoke. In 1992, a Billboard feature reported that the projected karaoke market in the U.S. would jump 79 percent over 1991 to $590 million, according to the estimates of the Simi Valley-based Karaoke International Sing-Along Association (sadly, since defunct). A charming first-person report in the same issue entitled “I Was A Human Karaoke Hound: A Neophyte Explores the Karaoke Experience” chronicles one night at the now-shuttered Daruma in Greenwich Village, where the writer reports, with a mixture of misery and delight, on his attempts to win over the crowd.
By the next year, karaoke appeared to have broken fully into the mainstream. New York magazine ran a cover story entitled “Tuesday Night Fever: A Karaoke Romance,” chronicling the tumultuous relationship of one New York couple through the lens of their favorite karaoke haunt, Flemings, on the Upper East Side. “On Manhattan’s karaoke circuit, the location changes from night to night, but the faces stay the same,” reported author Suzanne O’Malley. She goes on to summarize the personality and the crowds at various (mostly-long gone) karaoke bars of the day, including The Penn Bar, Pipeline and Houlihan’s. “Sooner or later,” she reported, “all good karaoke singers come to Flemings, like tennis players looking for the best match in town.”
But trends move quickly. In 1994, Spin editor James Greer, who once theorized that “karaoke equals the new punk rock,” declared after a night karaoking with the band Urge Overkill that “karaoke is dead.” The trend did seem to cool off in the mid-to-late-1990s, or at least the press dried up, until, in 2000, a nightlife columnist for the New York Times reported on a recurring downtown karaoke party—“that cheesiest of art forms, which has somehow snuck back intact from suburbia”—hosted by celebrity DJ Samantha Ronson.
When I moved to New York as a college student in 2005, I was familiar with karaoke as a concept, but I’d never done it. I can’t sing for shit, but I like dive bars and kitschy thrills and, thanks to my adolescent ambition to become a radio DJ, I also have a vast catalog of alt-rock songs committed to memory. It was only natural that I fell in with a group of friends that celebrated birthdays at Winnie’s and finished marathon bar crawls at Sing Sing. Occasionally we’d trek to the slicker private-room operations in Koreatown, but part of the pleasure of a night of karaoke was in commingling with dozens of other New Yorkers, all of us together in our drunkenness belting out Gin Blossoms songs.
Karaoke is at its best a collective exhale, a suspension of reality and something that has always felt both in contrast to and completely at home in a city where image is everything and guards are kept up as a simple matter of course. The sociological evidence for our attraction to it is sound, too: “The karaoke bar is a culture unto itself: participatory, eclectic, convivial, habitual, and liberating. There is singing, drinking, camaraderie, and wish-fulfillment. Karaoke gives everyone a chance to be the star, if only for a night, if only for one song,” wrote the authors of a 1994 research paper on the phenomenon (yes, karaoke earned the academic treatment). The paper went on to note that as karaoke patrons grow more comfortable (and often more intoxicated), the act becomes increasingly social. You don’t go to karaoke bars to sit and be left alone; even if you don’t muster the courage to sing, you’re still expected to at least acknowledge those who do, forming a fierce (albeit temporary) bond with friends and strangers alike.
I love karaoke for all these reasons and more. I feel comfortable positing that karaoke is one of the few truly democratic forms of entertainment in the world. It doesn’t matter whether you can or can’t actually sing—the only way to truly succeed at karaoke is to completely release all inhibitions and put your heart and soul into the performance. I, like so many misunderstood teenagers before me, moved to New York to be among other weirdos; karaoke became a physical manifestation of letting my freak flag fly, and receiving a round of applause in return. Now, years later, karaoke has become more than a way to find my tribe—in these uncertain times, it functions as a sort of catharsis.
Back at the newly refurbished Upstairs Bar, I’d downed enough of my watermelon-vodka slushie to request a song: The Kinks’ classic ode to a lovely transvestite, “Lola.” Rena cued me up, and I began my best Ray Davies drawl, mouthing along to the guitar riff in addition to the lyrics. As the chorus kicked in, the drunken Spaniard behind me grabbed the second mic and began chanting: “Lola, la-la-la-la Lola!”
*Not everyone remembers Winnie’s so fondly: Toby Cecchini, the owner of Long Island Bar in Brooklyn, sent me the following memory: “Many years back, I was a jury foreman on a Chinatown gangland murder trial that devoured more than a year of my life and gave me a very close-grained view of how the gangs controlled those streets. The trial took place literally right above Winnie’s—I could crane my neck to look out the window behind me in the jury box to see the bar below—which was super-bizarre, given that the murder took place as two competing gangs spilled out of that bar, shooting at one another, and killed an innocent passerby. I think a lot of people think it was just a lovable old kooky Chinese karaoke bar, but I know the realities of that evil place and would never have set foot in there. Winnie’s: Good riddance.”