I discovered Bohemian Rhapsody when I was six years old. Around the same time, I discovered I could carry a tune. Or I imagined I could carry one, anyway. You'll have to ask my (very tolerant) family members for their opinion. I'm sure they'll give you the unbiased truth.
Whether or not I was any good at singing, after that day, you couldn't shut me up if you tried. I had found my calling. I would grow up to become a professional singer.
I learned every single word to Queen's Greatest Hits album, of course, but I didn't discriminate. Small town Missouri doesn't exist without country music, and so I made quick work of adding Randy Travis and The Judds to my catalog. My parents listened to rock in the car (I almost said classic rock, but it wasn't classic back then!), and in went Aerosmith and John Fogerty.
During P.E. in middle school, my friends and I would sing Green Day songs as we did our jogging warmup. In high school, we would take over one of the classrooms to sing sad, sappy Jewel songs in floppy harmony. I sang in the car. I sang at work. I sang in the aisles of the grocery store.
I'm sure my compulsive vocalizations caused their fair share of annoyance, but most people were kind enough not to say anything. "You've got a great voice," someone would occasionally say.
"Thanks," I'd say with a grin, my heart swelling with validation.
Breaking news: I didn't become a professional singer.
I graduated from college and went into Teach For America and moved to California and made a bunch of cool friends who did crazy things like leave the house on the weekends - something to which I was wholly unaccustomed.
I'd never been to many bars - I'd graduated college at 20, and ID requirements in Boston were strict. But here I was, a 22-year-old with a group of twentysomething friends doing what people like us apparently did on Friday nights: go to the bar. And at one of these bars, there was a sign, written on the chalkboard over the stairs to the lower level.
Karaoke tonight. ↘️
"Karaoke! I love karaoke," said Christina.
"You should totally sing," said Rachele.
My heart exploded for a second. I'd never held a microphone in my life. I couldn't imagine standing in front of all these people, whose attention would surely be concentrated squarely on me, and doing ... what, the exact same thing I did every other day? Meh, what the hell. I grabbed a song book and a quarter-page slip of paper and a golf pencil and retreated into a corner of the bar to pick my song.
See, here's the thing about karaoke: you can know every word to every single song on the planet, and the minute you get the coveted karaoke book in your hands (Do you want "By Title" or "By Artist?" Big decision!) your mind becomes applesauce. I must have sat for half an hour with that book in my lap, flipping through and trying to find literally any song whose tune I knew well enough to sing it.
And, finally, I found it. Killing me Softly by the Fugees. I loved that song!
"Nicci, you're up," said the DJ and then he whispered in my ear, "The Fugees version is scratched. Is it OK if you do Roberta?"
I nodded enthusiastically. I'd been watching a lot of Hugh Grant's "About a Boy" at the time. Not to spoil anything, but there's a lot of "Killing me Softly" going on in that film. I could definitely do this.
But when the music started, I realized something. I'd heard this song a thousand times, but I didn't actually know it. I knew none of the words, or how they went with the music. So I just stood there, mumbling and trying not to cry, with the redness creeping from my chest all the way to the top of my forehead, until the song was over.
The only consolation is that, aside from my friends, everyone in the bar was so busy with their drinks and conversations, my colossal embarrassment didn't even register.
I spent the next five years seeking redemption for that failure of an outing.
The pub down the street from our apartment had karaoke every Sunday night, and my friends and I would venture out when there was a Monday holiday. We pushed through throngs of sweaty 40-year-olds to play tug-of-war with the song books and put in four requests at once. I built up a list of go-tos, sometimes singing duets with my friends, the regulars, or the host. Roberta Flack's version of Killing Me Softly made the cut, but only after I'd sung it a thousand times alone in my car.
Eventually my friends and I became the regulars. We found other singing spots, too. We knew who had the best catalog and who was using digital equipment instead of CDs. My bachelorette party even contained a stop at a karaoke bar, and somewhere, there exists a terrible-quality mp3 commemorating the occasion.
That was all before gender reveal parties and school drop-offs, when Monday holidays meant we could sleep it off until noon and wake up with a Bloody Mary and go hunting for a fried-ass breakfast.
Fast forward to 2016. I was a mom and a school administrator living in Boston. Even if I'd known where to find karaoke, only in my dreams would I have been able to go sing. But it was February, and I was off the coast of the Dominican Republic. On a cruise ship.
Hear me out. I know literally zero people who would dream of getting onto a floating petri dish with a few thousand strangers in 2022. But remember, this was years ago, and Sail Across the Sun was not just any cruise - it was a music cruise with multiple concerts every day. The smallest ones contained only a couple dozen folks, and you got to meet and chat with the artists between sets. If you arrived early enough to the biggest ones, you could get a spot right next to the stage.
And, of, course, there was karaoke.
More than ten years after my first embarrassing showing, I found myself descending another set of stairs into a huge lounge with a stage at the front. From there, it was all muscle memory. I didn't need to spend a half-hour thumbing through the book: I knew exactly what I would sing. And before I could finish my first drink, I was up.
At first, my fellow travelers sipped their drinks and kept on with their conversations. With the first chorus, though, things changed. Heads turned and eyebrows raised. People started moving and singing along. "All right!" someone said. By the last note, the area around the stage was packed. The applause was like a warm, validating hug.
I turned to leave the stage and was face to face with the lead signer of the biggest band there - someone whose voice and whose music had moved me through two decades. "That was fucking awesome," he said to me. "You have an amazing voice."
If I hadn't already slid the mic back into the stand, I would have dropped it right there. Because what better way to cap off my karaoke reunion tour than with a hug and an endorsement from my favorite artist?
Subscribers to my newsletter this week will get even more fun karaoke stuff like my song list and some embarrassing photos from those days, if I can dig them up. Don't forget to sign up using the form on this page or by clicking here!