FEATURE STORY: Karaoke in the Valley (A Scientific Analysis)

Samantha Kobs, design by Mackenzie Slattery, photos by Andrea Paulseth, Samantha Kobs |

1: Introduction

According to the peer-edited and highly regarded online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, karaoke was first popularized by a Japanese engineer in the late 1960s as a form of dinner entertainment. Since then, karaoke has adapted to fit a much larger global market and is paired more often with late-night drinking than the supper scene.

Although most locals are familiar with the concept of karaoke, very few of them actually voluntarily seek out opportunities to experience it themselves. When unofficially surveyed, people of the Chippewa Valley generally expressed three main concerns:

  1. Fear of singing in public
  2. Uncertainty about where to sing.
  3. A lack of pals to join them.

Lead researcher and unaccredited social scientist Samantha Kobs (me) felt it was her civic duty to embark on a karaoke journey that would produce substantiated data regarding the topic. Ultimately, the purpose of the research is to help inspire the greater Chippewa Valley to overcome fear and knowledge gaps holding them back from the ultimate wanna-be-pop-star experience.

2: Method

This study examines the karaoke culture and experience in and around a medium-sized city in the Chippewa Valley over a 10-week period. Research was conducted using a limited number of participants (literally just me). Because the budget for this research was $0, I offered myself to also double as sole participant. I felt that I was the most highly qualified individual for this particular research based on three factors:

  1. I have very average singing skills (see Figure 1);
  2. I have no children or pets to tend to.
  3. I am not easily embarrassed.

To eliminate factors that might sway data, I used the following controls:

  • I wore the same outfit each time (mostly black, like my soul).
  • I went out at approximately the same time each night (10pm – it’s the
    new midnight).
  • I consumed roughly the same number of the same type of drinks (three
    whiskey sours OR whiskey shots if I was feeling spicy).
  • I sang the same songs when available (“Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’”
    by Journey, “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, and “Knock Three Times” by
    Tony Orlando and Dawn).

Six different karaoke establishments were studied (some more than once). These places were chosen based on suggestions from locals, proximity to my home, and responsiveness to phone calls and/or outreach on social media platforms. Once at the establishments, observations were taken via looking with my eyeballs, then jotting down what I noticed as I sipped or slammed my whiskey and awaited my time in the spotlight. The notes taken were very poorly written and occasionally left at the establishment by accident.

3: Results

Throughout the intensive data collection, some very clear trends began to emerge. From these trends, I was able to establish key takeaways or pieces of advice for anyone who may be seeking a positive karaoke experience in the Chippewa Valley.

(Note: The following information is based solely on the experience of one individual person and should, therefore, be taken as legitimate and substantiated evidence.)

3.1: Vocal Skills Mean Nothing

There was not a direct positive correlation between singing ability and enjoyment of the night. The woman singing those off-pitch love ballads at the VFW was just as happy as Vern, the remarkably talented cowboy crushing “Country Roads” by John Denver at the 5 O’Clock Club (see Image). Skill level seemed irrelevant; instead, the ability to not give a hoot seemed more closely related to one’s level of merrymaking.

3.2: Your Friends Probably Don’t Want To Join

It’s hard enough to get your friends to come out past their regular bedtime, but getting them to sing “Pony” by Ginuwine takes a lot more than asking nicely or buying their drinks. You may never convince them to belt it out in a crowd full of strangers, and you need to respect that. Pressuring them or saying that you “remember when they used to be fun” will only add to their non-participation. Instead, revel in the fact that they will go home feeling disappointed in themselves. Exactly 100% of tag-along friends reported feeling some degree of envy and deep-rooted regret after failing to participate in the karaoke experience.

3.3: Physical Setup And Equipment Make A Difference

Some bars are awkwardly big or uncomfortably small. Some places allow you to take center stage while other places have no clear stage at all. The Plus (208 S. Barstow St., Eau Claire), offers a live band that performs with you, which allows you to channel your inner Tom Petty. In contrast, Scooter’s (411 Galloway St., Eau Claire), has a wall of mirrors with the dance floor as the stage, and Cowboy Jack’s (1432 Front Porch Place, Altoona), has a massive projection screen for easy sing-a-longs. Setups can make or break a karaoke experience depending on whether or not you want the spotlight.

3.4: Be Prepared

The majority of people’s anxiety comes from actually choosing their song(s). Some people flip through binders of options or scroll frantically through their phones looking for that perfect title only to have it snatched up by somebody else or to find out that the song isn’t available. Long story short: get your act together beforehand. Have a few songs ready before you walk through the door, and request them quickly. If you don’t attempt “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse, some lady with a tasteless eyebrow piercing definitely will. There is no time for contemplation – time is of the essence. 

3.5: Make Friends With The DJs

Nobody likes a suck-up, but you certainly want the DJ to like you. It might mean your name is bumped up the list … or maybe it just provides a great opportunity to make a connection with another human. Rick at the VFW Club 305 (1300 Starr Ave., Eau Claire), has the voice of a baritone angel and is always willing to sing duets. Kramer at the 5 O’Clock Club (2240 Fenwick Ave., Eau Claire), has won Best DJ of the Chippewa Valley for a reason. Jenny and the Jets at The Plus are the cool aunts and uncles you always wanted. But don’t be fooled: Not all DJs are created equal. Some may hit the sauce a bit too hard and forget you ever put your name on the list. Or worse – they may deny your chance to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” because you complained about the wait. Be cordial, be patient, be kind.

3.6: Karaoke Is Complex

The entire experience is based off many factors ranging from your attitude to song choice to crowd participation. My rendition of Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Knock Three Times” was met with inebriated celebration at one place while essentially ignored at another. It is important to consider all aspects of karaoke. For a visual of just how much each factor affects the overall experience, see Figure 2.

4: Discussion And Limitations

In an attempt to guide readers towards choosing an experience that works well for them, I have created a flow chart (Figure 3) as a step-by-step guide for maximum fun.

Perhaps the most important take-away from this experience has been a personal revelation of epic proportions: Karaoke is unbelievably communal. I realized that I wasn’t choosing songs because I could somewhat sing them – I was choosing them because I knew they would make people smile. My enjoyment came not from blowing other singers out of the water (which I didn’t), but rather from seeing other people sing along with me. Don’t get me wrong – it’s always nice when you remember all the lyrics and hit those high notes. But it’s even better when the entire bar does it along with you. And it wasn’t just me that was doing this crowd-pleasing thing – it was every single brave Midwestern soul who got up there with a microphone. Whether they were singing “Alive” by Pearl Jam or “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, it was because they wanted other people to enjoy it with them. And that’s something beautiful, if you ask me.

I gotta be honest. On more than one occasion, I completely bailed on my own research because I was lazy, cold, or tired. Once, I made the grave mistake of going home after dinner “just for a bit” before heading out to karaoke and then unintentionally zonked out on my couch. When first planning the research, I had intended to hit up more places than six, but I simply didn’t. Dragging yourself out of the house may not be the easiest task, but there’s one thing research will tell us for certain: In exactly 100% of reported cases, those who chose to embarrass themselves for the enjoyment of others experienced nearly 10 times the personal gratification than those who chose to stay in. And with the eclectic underground karaoke scene of the Chippewa Valley now officially documented, it’s that much easier to find your people.