My New York Obsession

NYC Rhapsody: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Koreatown Karaoke

Sometimes all you need in this town is a few friends, a few tunes, and $6 an hour.

Photo by Bruno Cervera/Unsplash

Before James Corden made Carpool Karaoke a thing, I thought karaoke was something that only happened at Asian weddings, Lunar New Year, and church fundraisers after the adults got tipsy. Growing up in a sleepy suburb of the San Francisco Bay Area, I watched my normally stoic dad knock back a few at one of these shindigs, loosen his tie, and saunter onstage to serenade us with a pre-1975 Vietnamese bolero, often off-key, off-tempo, and off-everything. He would stare at the horizon as he sang, and though I didn’t understand all the lyrics, I could feel the emotion thrumming behind them. He sang about love (sweet) and soldiers missing home (honestly, sort of a mood killer). My job was to bring him a rose or two from the table centerpiece during instrumental breaks. 

But, dear reader: I am not my father. I may occasionally belt a tune in the car, but singing solo? In public? No, thanks. 

Photo by Sam Moqadam/Unsplash

So when my college friends, whom I hadn’t seen since last May, invited me out for karaoke in Koreatown, I was in a bit of a bind. Picking up a microphone requires stage presence and guts. I was so shy as a kid that my mom enrolled me in cheerleading classes. They didn’t take. And since I majored in English and not engineering, I wouldn’t know how to build one of those Men in Black memory erasers if things really went badly. 

I pulled up my Spotify, swiping through, thinking: Too sad…too slow…too this, too that…. Why do I have a “Wallowing/Weeping Willow” playlist? 

I agreed to go, thinking that I could tag along and blend into the furniture since there would be six of us. We caught up and dined on crispy mandoo at Take 31, one of the many joints in Koreatown, then headed to Duet 35 for our 2 p.m. reservation. The elevator opened out to a lobby with a full bar (remember, it’s 2 o’clock) packed with groups waiting to get started. 

Photo by Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons

An employee led us down a narrow Matrix-like hallway full of doors and directed us into one of the last rooms on the right. There was a black U-shaped couch. As we sat, our thighs stuck to the fabric due to the humidity. Red, green, and blue LED lights danced on the walls, which were paneled. I prayed this meant the space was semi-soundproof and that what happened in this room would stay in this room. 

After briefly excusing myself to go to the bathroom and psych myself up, I returned to see two friends dancing as my roommate sang Mika’s “Big Girls, You Are Beautiful.” I picked up a songbook and quickly realized there were almost too many tunes to choose from. The selections skewed to Top 40 and classics, but it was easy to imagine every song ever written at the touch of a button. Panicked, I pulled up my Spotify, swiping through, thinking: Too sad…too slow…too this, too that…. Why do I have a “Wallowing/Weeping Willow” playlist?

My friends saved me by cueing up “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which is basically the national anthem of karaoke. The power of Freddie Mercury compelled me to let loose and sing along. We followed it up with a melodramatic rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” and soon I didn’t have time to feel self-conscious.  

During the instrumental breaks, there weren’t any roses on hand, but my friends laughed and hooted their support for me and one another. It wasn’t about being pitch-perfect or getting all the words right. It was about feeling

Each song got easier and easier, and I started motioning for the mic instead of hot-potato-ing it away. In this little room on the second floor above the packed streets of Koreatown, I released my inhibitions and felt the metaphorical rain on my skin. I may not be on Broadway anytime soon for my rendition of “Reflection” from Mulan, but I’ll definitely be back.

Too quickly, our two hours were almost up, forcing us to do a speed round, where we sang our favorite bits and quickly skipped to the next track. 

I’m not ashamed to tell you that I cried from laughing and spilled water down my shirt when my friend embodied Sharpay’s spirit in a rousing performance of “Bop to the Top.” Too quickly, our two hours were almost up, forcing us to do a speed round, where we sang our favorite bits and quickly skipped to the next track. 

When we returned our microphones to the front desk, I noticed a security camera feed of the multiple lounges, a fact I wish I’d known before I attempted moonwalking while playing air guitar. Each little rectangle showed people gyrating, jumping, and living out their rock-star dreams to the max as if they were trying to win a record deal on The Voice. I had no need to be embarrassed: I was one of them. 

Photo by Axi Aimee/Unsplash

The next day, I scrolled through the photos and videos we had taken of ourselves while we were high on the karaoke buzz. I called my dad to tell him what I had been up to and to ask, “Why did you always sing at these parties? What made you want to get up there?” 

“We actually couldn’t afford a live band,” he told me. “Even hiring one guy would be expensive, so why do that when all of us can take a turn up there?”

Who knows—next time, maybe I’ll even take a turn.

Jenny Ly is a graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course and Smith College. She left the Bay Area to pursue book publishing in New York. Follow her on Twitter @jennylyUC.