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Whether you’re imitating Eddie Money or daring to try a Whitney Houston song, karaoke is one of D.C.’s favorite pastimes. The act of singing in front of strangers holds unparalleled power in this town: It can convert co-workers into friends, make a bridal party get along, and unite a whole room of overworked Washingtonians in belting out an anthem.
But have you ever stopped to consider what it’s like to work a shift at a bar with karaoke? The bartenders who sling sake bombs to schizophrenic soundtracks endure our screeches, unoriginal song choices, and tone-deaf notes. Some can’t get enough of our antics. Others yearn for a mute button. “I often drive in a car with no music on,” says Ellis Lane, who mixed drinks at Little Miss Whiskey’s during the bar’s eight-year karaoke run. “Silence is golden.”
City Paper turned the tables to give these bartenders the mic so they can sound off on what they really think about our karaoke skills. Spoiler alert: You’re slaughtering Frank Sinatra.
What’s the most memorable performance you’ve ever observed—good or bad?
“We have a regular who comes in and just screams, but it’s so funny and he loves it,” says Madam’s Organ General Manager Camille Boyette. “He does it in his biker speedos and bike shoes. He’s a character. If you’re here and you see him you’re like, ‘Score! Bob’s here.’”
“He reminds me of the guy on American Idol who really sucked and ended up making a career out of sucking,” Boyette continues. Remember William Hung? He auditioned with a cringeworthy rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.” Hung recently gave a TEDx Talk on “Turning Failure Into Success.”
Have confidence like Hung, but don’t go overboard.
“We had a girl sing ‘Fancy’ by Iggy Azalea,” recounts Zeppelin bartender Madeline Avillion. Karaoke takes place in Zeppelin’s upstairs dining room, which has a long communal table stretching down its center. “I went to talk to a manager really quickly about a keg. We turn around and the girl is laying backwards on the table trying to do a somersault. On a Wednesday.”
Sometimes songs are forever changed for karaoke bartenders. “There was someone in the Kostume Karaoke group where whenever they sang that ‘walk 500 miles’ song, instead of singing ‘da da da da’ they sang ‘shot of vodka,’” Lane says. She’s referring to The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” “Now I always say that when the song comes on.”
Sometimes a touching moment breaks through the haze of shots and Long Island Iced Teas. “One Sunday night there was a blind gentleman who came into the bar,” says Ugly Mug bartender Matt “Montana” Gordon. “When karaoke came on they handed him the mic. The guy he was with would lean over and tell him the words in his ear and then he would sing them. It was incredible. Someone live-streamed it and put it on social media. All these other people showed up just to see him perform.”
Few bars take karaoke more seriously than Dupont Italian Kitchen, better known as DIK Bar. After neighboring gay bar Colbalt closed in March, DIK Bar picked up one of its annual traditions—Pride Idol. The six-week competition advances contestants to a final few days of singing leading up D.C.’s Pride Parade in June, where the Pride Idol winner takes the stage.
“That was the best because you got to see the best singers and there was crowd participation because everyone got to vote,” says DIK Bar bartender Brett Johnson. She says Robbie Bise won the competition by singing “Walking in Memphis.” It was particularly meaningful for Bise because he used to be a karaoke jockey at Cobalt. “It was truly an emotional moment,” Bise says. “I’d sent so many other singers to that stage. It was an honor to become one of them.”
What song do you know you’re going to hear every single shift?
DC9 does karaoke a little differently by zeroing in on indie rock. “Lots of regulars come in and sing The Strokes or Robyn,” says bar manager Jenai Master. But they also get a unique set of performers. “Show kids. People who were musical theater nerds. We’ve had a lot of Hamilton songs. Songs from Rocky Horror Picture Show. And that fucking Lady Gaga duet, ‘Shallow.’” The latter usually prompts theatrics. “There’s lots of sitting and standing. It’s usually two men at DC9, which is really lovely.”
DIK Bar sees its share of Disney tunes, especially anything sung by Ursula from The Little Mermaid. But the sea witch’s lyrics make the bartenders the poor unfortunate souls in the room. “Someone always sings the Queen Latifah version of ‘When You’re Good to Mama’ from Chicago,” Johnson says. “People have tried Billie Eilish and Lizzo recently. Tried.”
Jaquan Mussington is what’s known as a KJ, or karaoke DJ. He runs the show backed by black lights and a smoke machine most nights at DIK Bar. He has better data on the most played songs. He says they’re “Friends in Low Places,” “Take Me Home Country Roads,” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is almost always a given, though it’s a commitment at five minutes and 55 seconds long. “The mics go around the room, it becomes a community thing,” Avillion says. “People really enjoy it.”
Master agrees. “Queen has such badass power ballads,” she says. “Anytime something like Queen comes on, everyone is on their feet screaming and singing along. It could be ‘We Are The Champions.’ Everyone wants to sing it. No one is pissed it’s not their turn when Queen’s being sung. Everyone’s happy.”
Except for Solly’s bartender Kyle Fiske. “I know it’s coming on and I bear down for the next eight minutes.”
Which song do you hope to never hear performed again?
“How many times can I hear someone’s personal version of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’?’” asks Lane. “We should all be more supportive of each other. I believe in the ‘dance like no one’s watching’ idea, but your friends are lying to you. You can’t sing.” Master is also sick of Journey. “It’s one of those songs people think they can sing well,” she concurs.
For Boyette it’s Sinatra. “I love Frank, but I don’t love when people sing it,” she says. “When ‘New York, New York’ comes on, you get the can-can going on stage. Especially if it’s a group of guys and girls together. They can’t help but be cheesy about it. It hurts when I see him slaughtered.”
No one should cry at karaoke, according to Lisa, a bartender at Rock It Grill. “For some reason, people try to sing ‘Angel’ by Sarah McLachlan. That’s the one in the commercials. All you can think about is puppies in cages. It’s very much a buzzkill,” says Lisa, declining to put her last name on that take.
Like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Don McLean’s “American Pie,” is too long, according to Mussington. “If you want to kill a karaoke host’s spirit, you do ‘American Pie,’ he says. “It’s the repetition and how long it is. It’s almost a 10 minute song.” It’s eight minutes and 35 seconds. “Everyone comes up to me like, ‘Why are they doing this song?’ I’m like, ‘Listen you guys, it’s almost over. I’m kind of on your side, but we’re almost there.’”
Other songs that make karaoke bartenders’ ears bleed include anything from Evanescence, “Freebird,” “Wagon Wheel,” and “Coming to America.”
What advice do you have for karaoke singers?
There are definite dos and don’ts. “We had someone right when we opened pick an R. Kelly song,” Avillion says. “He got two lines into it and the whole room booed him. No, you can’t sing that song. It’s too soon.” The singer was arrested in July and faces 18 federal counts, including child pornography and kidnapping.
DIK Bar has an actual policy in place, according to Mussington. “I typically don’t have any songs that are off limits, but there’s an artist I won’t let anybody sing,” he says. “That’s none other than R. Kelly. It would cause too much controversy. Everyone is booing. There are arguments. I can’t handle that stress.” He asked his boss if he could turn down requests by citing an official policy.
“If you’re white, don’t rap the N-word,” Master says, ticking off another major don’t. “We will turn off the sound and you will stop singing karaoke. Some people will skip it when they’re singing, or they’ll say a friend’s name instead. 99 percent of people know, but every once in a while someone will do it.” That said, she’s OK with white people rapping. “They usually suck, but as long as they’re not offensive. A lot of people right now think they can sing Cardi B.”
Fiske is fed up with amateur singers dropping the mic. “It’s sort of disrespectful,” he says. “Jeez, you just went up there and sang for a few minutes and now you’re going to smash this expensive mic and the whole place will go silent? You’re like, ‘I killed this Bon Jovi song and now I want to make everyone super uncomfortable.’ No one is getting a signed deal from Kostume Karaoke at Solly’s.”
Don’t monopolize the mic either. “You’re a special individual, but I have to take care of everyone in the bar,” says Mussington. “Don’t expect me to put you up there every five seconds.”
Margaux Donati, the beverage director for Chaplin’s and Zeppelin, agrees. “Remember that everyone is dying to sing, and remain patient,” she implores. “We can’t do two songs at once. People often times, with a little alcohol in them, will get a little aggressive. Just remember to be there to have fun and not take it too seriously. People treat it like try-outs for American Idol.” For real. “We have people that come in and warm up,” Lisa adds. “They do jumping jacks and ask for lemon and honey from the bar to warm up their throat.”
And yet, karaoke bartenders encourage singers to abandon conventional wisdom. Unlike your job, the gym, or the bedroom, the worse you perform, the better. “The more nail-biting it is, the better it is for the most part,” says Boyette. “There’s no wrong you can do during karaoke.”
Boyette particularly likes seeing groups gel over the course of an evening. “It’s good for co-workers getting to know each other because you have to let your guard down,” she says. “The worse you sound, the better off you’re going to be. You can’t fail at karaoke. You’re also not going to be discovered.”
Want to sing at these bars? Here are their hours:
1544 9th St. NW
Nightly from 10:30 p.m. until close. Minimum $20 spend per person on food and drink.
1940 9th St. NW
The last Sunday of the month from 8 p.m. to close
723 8th St. SE
District Karaoke on Thursday nights starting at 7 p.m. and Ebony Pyramid Entertainment karaoke on Sunday nights starting at 9 p.m.
2461 18th St. NW
Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 p.m. to close
Dupont Italian Kitchen
1637 17th St NW
Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 9 p.m. to close and Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 p.m. to close
1942 11th St NW
Thursday nights from 8 p.m. to close upstairs
Rock It Grill
1319 King St., Alexandria
Nightly from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m
Want to hear the songs from this story? Here is a Spotify playlist:
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Correction: One quote in this story was misattributed to Avillion instead of Master. It has been updated.