Performing in Private: Karaoke Fantasies in Koreatown
Manhattan's Koreatown is the capital of the self-conscious pop-star-wannabe world.
Photographs by Max Campbell and John Stillman
These days, stardom glimmers but a sweepstakes away. Celebrity—the social class, the phenomenon—is knowable. It is omnipresent. In Hollywood and Manhattan, it is spottable from the right street corner, and this propagates the illusion of its attainability. Celebrity is something one enters to win—if not the talent or the fan base, then the trappings of stardom, the lifestyle we dream of one day receiving in a gift-wrapped box. At the heart of proper celebrity worship is faith in the Cinderella story and the suspicion, best left unvoiced, that one’s number might be called at any time—that one is or may be the next big thing. It is a belief that until that day, we all deserve the life of the stars and can live it vicariously.
It is a religion that’s practiced all over the world, but nowhere more vehemently than in the 12 private lounges clustered along a single block of Midtown Manhattan—32nd St., between Fifth Ave. and Broadway—known as Koreatown. Between the Empire State Building, once the world’s tallest building, and Macy’s, the world’s largest store; amidst the troves of souvenir trinkets and t-shirts, the thread-spinning wholesalers of the Garment District, the men in vests hawking tickets for double-decker bus tours, the dumpling shops, the splendor of it all: a hub for people who want to sing other people’s songs.
On game shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent, pop stardom functions as currency for winners and bait for viewers. Millions flock to domes across the country to wait in day-long lines, at the end of which lay the specter of a golden ticket. A genre of video games played on Americans’ same deeply held beliefs. With Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero, the stardom simulator could be installed in the basement.
This is the basis of the karaoke industry. A karaoke bar is an arcade of the stardom charade. “It’s a booming business in America,” says the man behind the counter at Gagopa Karaoke, whose owner also runs 32 Karaoke, some 20 paces away. The venues along 32nd Street offer noreabang, the Korean version of karaoke that takes place in private eight to twenty-person rooms available for rent at the front counter. (Karaoke, in Korean, refers to the same performance of on-screen lyrics in front of an audience of unknown fellow bar-goers; this form is dominant in the U.S. but relatively uncommon in Korea.) Noreabang has become widely popular and firmly ingrained in Korean culture since the Japanese introduced the karaoke machine in the early 1990s. There’s now one machine for every 80 South Koreans. In Korea, it is typically a sober affair, considered in terms of its palliative qualities.
“There is some kind of relief when you sing a song that reflects your emotion,” the Gagopa host says. “When people are upset or feel bad, they go to noreabang for fresh air,” explains the young man at Karaoke 32. A trope in Korean cinema, noreabang scenes are often the turning point or climax of a film.
Performances are scored against a field of online competitors and can be recorded and shared or emailed to oneself. The host at Wow Karaoke notes that Americans approach it differently: “Nobody has asked me, ‘Can I record my song?’ They just drink and sing.”
A night in Koreatown doesn’t resemble a night in Seoul so much as a night in Epcot. It is a swirlingly multicultural adventure. It might begin with dinner at a below-ground restaurant called K Town, where lanterns are strung from the ceiling and Korean characters are painted onto wood plaques hanging on the walls and K-Pop music videos play on the televisions and the waiters wear NBA jerseys. On one such night, a friend and I had the pleasure of being waited on by a woman in a Stoudemire jersey who brought out chips and salsa in the little sweet-and-sour sauce dishes. When we finished our meal, a bus-boy in an Eli Manning t-shirt brought the check, and at that moment the dance-club lights began to pulsate and spin and the TV played a video of a young Korean man, bloodied and helpless, hysterically weeping over the body of his dying love, while “N***as in Paris” blared. Back on the sidewalk, a bakery called Tous Les Jours: Authentic Bakery advertised pastries “made with the highest quality ingredients from Korea.” Across the street stood its competitor, Paris Baguette. Two Korean men made crepes in a window. The post-dinner, pre-karaoke constitutional is recommended.
When you’re ready, walk into a narrow elevator lobby and ride up several floors, past skincare clinics and real estate offices and two floors of Miss Korea BBQ, and voila, the doors open like those of the Wardrobe, and you behold a room of stainless steel and glass and mirrors, lit by a kaleidoscope of flashing lights. It dawns on you that you may be as many floors below ground as you are above it. There is a bar counter with a smiling young man behind it and a hallway with doors on either side, and there are no other patrons in sight. If you were hoping to mingle and impress or watch and judge and laugh, you are in the wrong place. You are not here to watch strangers sing or to have them watch you. You tell the man that you would like a private room. The transaction is discreet. That’s what you’re here for.
The man at Gagopa explains the draw. “You express yourself and it’s private. You have a closed circle of friends, you’re not ashamed, you can sing your heart out, and it doesn’t have to be good.”
Noreabang was imported to Koreatown because it appeals to a particularly American consumption ethic. With only a couple exceptions, the venues do not offer open mic karaoke, only private rooms at hourly rates. About forty dollars gets you a room with a wraparound couch facing a large screen, a remote control the size of a textbook with some 55 buttons besides the keypad, and a tambourine, which the venues must replace from time to time when people steal it. The remote, made by TJ Media (“Together & Joy”), is wrapped in cellophane to protect against spills. Per its slogan, “Delivering fun and joy to your life is TJ media’s NO. 1 mission.” Bottles of liquor cost around $150 and usually come with a complimentary fruit platter.
It is the ultimate luxury for the Manhattan socialite: a cabana experience, a night out with the privacy of a night in. The appeal is self-explanatory: fortified accommodations at the eye of the metropolitan tempest, with a backdrop of gleaming skyscrapers, massive but noiseless behind the thick glass window that hermetically seals you into a chamber where your instrumental track blares and your lyrics turn golden when sung and it’s only Wednesday but you are the star. It sounds familiar because it’s the American Dream.
Most karaoke lounges on the block are designed according to a discernible aesthetic formula: metallic blue, space-age vibes, like what you might find at the below-deck dance club on a cruise ship or at a spa sponsored by The Sharper Image. In extolling their respective establishments, employees emphasize matters of sanitation. They offer sanitary microphone covers and light candles in the singing rooms after a party leaves to combat the lingering smell of the drunken chorus. “Lounge” is a preferred term among the venues—used, one assumes, to suggest that they are comfortable places to hang out. The elevator doors opened into Stage Karaoke & Lounge on a recent Saturday night to reveal two girls seated at the bar wearing Snuggies and nibbling at a fruit platter.
“A lot of customers that went other places, they love our decorations and our mood,” the host at Music Story humbly boasts. “They say, ‘Oh, this is good, it looks like a karaoke place.’” If any of the venues look like a karaoke place, they all do. The majority of lounges along 32nd Street are decorated with posters of American musicians. According to its website, “At Stage Karaoke we offer sleek and sexy rooms with different personalities in them.” The entrance to Wow is lined with action figures of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Kiss. The host there describes the setting as “a simple and easy design.”
K-Pop songs rank atop the lists of most-performed tracks (Tae Jung’s “Eyes, Nose, Lips” is generally the favorite, with some three to four times as many plays as the most-played English-language song, which at most places is Idina Menzel’s “Letting Go,” from the Frozen soundtrack), and yet, Korean musicians are notably absent from the walls. “It’s America,” the host at Gagopa explains. “This is the Korean concept of karaoke set up for American people.”
Though not exclusively, karaoke is for people who have work tomorrow but relish a mid-week hangover. It is for the business professional who lives according to the mantra of work hard, play hard, who on a weeknight stumbles out of the elevator in a suit and pays for an hour in the upstairs room and a bottle of vodka for the women he brought and says, “I’m gonna do a little ten-dollar tip on there, my friend. That’s just the way I’m gonna roll tonight.”
It is for company parties. A sign on the elevator up to MK Karaoke directs employees of Duval & Stachenfeld, LLP to the fourth floor. A young woman leaving Chorus Karaoke points to the legal file tucked under her arm and notes cheerily, “I have trial tomorrow.” A sharply dressed man bursts onto the sidewalk after a grueling karaoke session with colleagues and declares, “I haven’t smoked a Parliament in years!”
But it’s more complex than that.
Karaoke is a Cinderella story for the meek but attention-starved, the interns and executives alike, who live in anticipation of their Moment, of leaving it on the stage, of nailing Journey and dropping the mic to the roar of canned applause. It is for bashful dreamers with egos too big and too frail to avail their talents to any but the most supportive and non-judgmental ears. A private karaoke room is a pre-packaged party that goes off without a hitch if you can operate the 55-button remote, and in that sense it is for birthday girls and boys.
On a recent Thursday I sat at the bar of MK Karaoke, surrounded by frosted glass, as one such party emerged from their room, sweaty and bleary-eyed, and young woman in a leather jacket said, “Nick! Where are you going?! We got champagne, and it’s free, ‘cause it’s my birthday, BITCHES!” The manager giddily poured the champagne into a row of flutes, scurried to fetch sparklers, lit them and handed them to the birthday girl. I caught the bartender’s eye. “He does this all the time,” he mumbled.
Then the manager reappeared bearing an ornately crafted desert in the shape of the pumpkin carriage from Cinderella. The group snapped pictures on their cellphones, but it was past midnight and the sparklers had fizzled and the spell was quickly fading and it was time to get home.
As I was getting ready to leave, two muscular, young Korean-American men took seats at the bar. “Excuse me,” one of them said to the bartender. His friend blushed and shook his head and effused his tact and embarrassment. “It’s his birthday… You think we could get him a birthday shot?” The bartender nodded and poured the obligatory libation. The two friends clinked glasses and felt like stars in the room full of flashing lights and echoes of amateurs’ noble attempts at “Don’t Stop Believin’.”