If you don’t know where to look, look into the lights. That’s what I keep reminding myself during the opening chords of INXS’ ‘Never Tear Us Apart.’
We’re at the Zodiac Karaoke Party on a Monday night, in an almost-empty bar-cum-theater on Charles Street, sitting in half-booths mounted to the wall, nursing Yuenglings and watching Jessie, the bartender at the Yellow Sign Theater, absolutely kill it, doing a rendition of the Cardigans’ ‘Lovefool.’ There’s a lot of reverb on the mic, so everyone sounds good, no matter what they’re singing. If you look around, the place is weird—dried flowers on the walls between booths, a stage with lights that move with the beat of each song, black walls. The creative director of the theater plots his rendition of the Jam and tells me about the oobleck wrestling tournament he wants to do—a competition where people fight in a substance that’s a liquid when poured, but a solid when subject to force. I can see it happening here, because I can see almost anything happening here.
Being new in this town is tough—“Smalltimore,” as they call it, is for real, and it feels like everyone’s known each other for years and years and I’ve only been here for a year. People keep asking me: “Why did you move to Baltimore?” For a job that seemed better than my last one, to live in a house again, for a new adventure, because in the last place I lived, Hawaii, everything came full circle. But I didn’t know this part about this town—there ain’t much space for a newcomer to slide into. My karaoke companion flaked on me so I’m flying solo, but then my phone buzzes again. A friend from the place I just left, that island in the middle of an ocean, is in town for work and wants to know if I want to hang. That island loves karaoke, and so does she.
The Zodiac Karaoke Party is the people’s karaoke. Erstwhile CP contributor Rjyan Kidwell hosts and bartender Jessie co-hosts. “Jessie and I are 50/50 on this thing,” Kidwell says. “Getting it started and making it work is a total collaborative effort.” He tells me that this night is his community service—that is, what he does when he isn’t recording electronic music as Cex, DJing, writing for Arthur or other publications, acting in plays such “The Golden Spike” or “Two Suns Over Thebes” at the Annex Theater, or appearing in a conceptual art porno video segment of The Acme Corporation’s take on “Kaspar.” At karaoke night, Kidwell explains, you get to see parts of people that you don’t see any other time. He tells me that this is how he helps the scene smoke out the charlatans—because the too-hip band dudes don’t do karaoke, as it might disturb their carefully curated image. Here, there’s no image, no pretension. Just new people showing up to sing Kate Bush and Nine Inch Nails songs every week.
If you’re new in town, if you’re lonely, if you’re looking for a space to talk about music and dance with less of the bullshit that goes along with a lot of the live music experience—this night might be your place. There’s a huge song list, the line goes quickly, and people are excited, really excited. There’s two guys doing a Bowie-off with the deep cuts, every song more turned up than the last. Only a few people have the guts to make eye contact with the crowd during their songs, and Kidwell is one of them. I am not.
People are drinking and singing, but maybe more importantly, they’re talking. They’re talking about songs they haven’t heard in years, about the bands they love, and about Baltimore. There’s a give and take and a dialogue that happens at karaoke nights that can be easy to miss at shows or on a normal night out. I can see it unfolding all around me—even during a half-funny, half-cringe-inducing cover of Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ by a woman that’s clearly a regular, a woman who is part of the texture of this night that makes it feel special.
At the last minute, I change my request from INXS’ ‘Need You Tonight’ to ‘Never Tear Us Apart.’ A ballad fits the night better, fits my mood better—it’s cold and rainy, I’m making friends in stutters and starts, and people here are too drunk to dance, but not too drunk to sway and point their fingers in the air during the high notes. Karaoke is where we come when we need to feel bigger and better than we are, sexier, more in control, and an INXS ballad makes me feel this tonight. It’s got the notes I can hit. The enormous support of the crowd, and the Yuengling haze, lifts me through a fog of loneliness and homesickness. Maybe it can do that for you, too. And I’m laughing, a lot, especially at choices that might have been misguided, at myself, and at how I barely recognize myself these days.
The Zodiac Karaoke Party takes place every Monday at 9 p.m. at the Yellow Sign Theatre.