The Incredible Portland Karaoke Scene

“Here’s the important thing to remember about Portland. No one’s here to get rich. Unlike everywhere else in America. There’s a critical mass here of people here following their passions.”

The quote above is from one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read this month; it is Dan Kois’s story on the karaoke scene in Portland, Oregon. I’ve only been to karaoke maybe five or six times in my life, but I love the city of Portland, and Dan’s experience resonated with me.

In the piece, Kois profiles John Brophy, who runs  Baby Ketten Karaoke in Portland and every week:

adds as many as 20 tracks to the Baby Ketten songbook. Some of these are songs he purchases from karaoke studios, not unlike any karaoke jockey, or K.J., in America. But many of them are songs hand-assembled by Brophy, much as he’s doing with “Electioneering” — B.K.K. originals that Brophy constructs either because the studios that recorded “official” karaoke versions did bad jobs, or because the song is such an obscurity that no studio has ever recorded a karaoke version. For example, if you’d like to sing Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl,” the Gregory Brothers’ “Bed Intruder Song” (with full Auto-Tune), Danger Doom’s “Sofa King” or Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” Baby Ketten has them all. (I know: I saw people sing them.) Your local karaoke bar doesn’t.

There are just so many things to learn from this article, such as the popularity of “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” a 1972 epic written in gibberish by the Italian performer Adriano Celentano, supposedly to mimic how English sounds to the Italian ear. The lyrics are pure gibberish, and the original music video is below:

 

 

In the piece, Dan meets Addie Beseda at Baby Ketten Karaoke. Here’s a clip of her nailing “Prisencolinensinainciusol”:

 

 

This paragraph was excellent, but you have to watch the video clip below to fully appreciate it:

A tall young man in a puffy jacket swayed up onto the stage, then kicked into the lyrics — but instead of imitating Jack White’s rock ’n’ roll keen, he sang in a rhythm-and-blues croon. The song was instantly transformed from dirty garage rock to bedroom soul. It sounded incredible, as if the song were written that way in the first place. When it was over, Justin bowed, accepting our applause, then replaced the microphone in its stand and walked out the door, never to return.

The slow rendition of “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes mentioned above:

 

 

Wow.

Dan Kois with a beautiful conclusion on the city of Portland:

Portland isn’t just the capital of karaoke, I was realizing. The Japanese influence, the small-business climate and the abundance of bands don’t really matter. Portland is the capital of America’s small ponds. It’s a city devoted to chasing that feeling — the feeling of doing something you love, just for a moment, and being recognized for it, no matter how obscure or unnecessary or ludicrous it might seem to the straight world. It is the capital of taking frivolity seriously, of being silly as if it’s your job.

I’ll be back in Portland in July 2013 for the annual World Domination Summit (here are some readings to get you familiar; here is my summary from Cal Newport, who spoke at WDS 2012). I am going to spend a few days outside the conference doing touristy things, and certainly on my list of things to do this year will be to check out the karaoke scene in Portland. Who’s with me?

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