How Korean Karaoke Changed My Life
Travel Stories: After being turned away from the school choir, Lavinia Spalding lost her love of public singing. Then she moved to South Korea.
08.09.16 | 1:05 PM ET
Growing up, I was The One Who Could Not Sing. My older sister and brother, on the other hand, were routinely cast in musicals and chosen for high school Madrigals (the “Glee”-like choir reserved for the cream of the teen vocal crop). At Christmas, my siblings harmonized over “We Three Kings”—and while they charitably let me sing along, it was pretty clear who was the weakest king.
Meanwhile, my father enforced strict family rules blatantly designed to silence my ambitious lungs:
1. No singing in the morning before breakfast.
2. No singing at the table (breakfast, lunch, or dinner).
None of this deterred me. I sang in the afternoon and evening, in the shower and in my bedroom and standing on living-room furniture. I sang in the car and in the grocery store, my fist serving as a microphone. And as I entered my teens in the ‘80s, I sang everything on offer: Bananarama and Boy George, Rick Springfield and Richard Marx, Oingo Boingo and OMD, Tanya Tucker and Tammy Wynette, Guns N’ Roses and Quiet Riot. I sang it all, I sang it loud, and I sang it off-key.
“You can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” my father told me.
“You couldn’t sing your way out of a paper bag,” he also said.
I rolled my eyes at him and sang even louder.
When I entered high school, I couldn’t wait to audition for choir. On the second day of classes, I charged into the music room filled with optimism, and found Mrs. Best, the music instructor, looking equally hopeful (she had, after all, been blessed with my siblings for pupils). Mrs. Best instructed me to stand beside the piano, then she played a note I was to replicate in song. I tried. Her eyebrows furrowed. She played a different key. I tried again. Her brows furrowed further. After about three minutes of this—her brows now puckered somewhere around her chin—I was sent away and not invited back. I was crushed. After that, I continued to sing in private, but in public, I kept my vocal stylings to myself.
Things changed when I moved to South Korea straight out of college to teach English as a Second Language. A few days after I had arrived, my school principal suggested that all the American and Korean teachers dine together then hit a noraebang, or “song room.” In other words, Korean-style karaoke. The Americans were reluctant, but attendance was not optional.
After dinner, which included endless bottles of beer and soju, our group of 10 crossed the street to a noraebang and crowded into a small, dark, private room lined with vinyl strawberry-colored padded benches, atrocious flowered wallpaper, and one low table. A disco ball hung from the ceiling, and a television monitor on the wall played a video of David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen jumping and gyrating. (The same video repeated all night, accompanying every song, but at no point was a Van Halen tune actually played.)
As soon as we squeezed around the table, the Koreans handed us thick binders that catalogued thousands of Korean songs, plus three thin pages of English tunes. Most of the names of singers and songs were misspelled, while others were merely incomplete, like the classic Elvis number, “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Ho.”
Then one of the Korean teachers cued up a disco remix of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” and—following her lead—we danced, shook plastic tambourines, drank beer, ate shrimp-flavored chips, and sang along. It wasn’t so bad: A private room was a considerable improvement over the ignominy of public karaoke bars back home.
But there were two things about noraebang we didn’t yet know. First, not only was participation obligatory—there was no “sitting this one out”—but everyone was also expected to take a solo. So while the American contingent was initially allowed to sing group tunes (we chose “Sweet Caroline” and “California Dreaming”), before long the microphone was being passed from person to person. Lionel Richie, Celine Dion, and Julio Iglesias were being soloed, with nary a hint of irony, along with popular Korean boy bands G.O.D. (Groove Overdose) and H.O.T (High-five of Teenagers).
As the microphone circled the cramped room, closing in on the American side, we tore frantically through our songbooks. Pressure mounted. I glanced around, sizing up my American competition. Then I took a deep breath, tapped a Korean teacher on the shoulder, and pointed to the name of an old favorite. She flashed me a thumbs-up and programmed the song. I waited for my turn.
When the first notes of my selection—“Dancing Queen”—rang out, my Korean co-workers jumped up and squealed. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and I tried to conjure my younger, unrestrained self. I waved my hands, shook my tambourine, and squeaked out high notes I had zero chance of reaching, until I ran out of verses and all but flung the microphone into my coworker’s lap, relieved to get out of the spotlight.
Which brings me to the second surprise. When your song at noraebang ended, a machine attached to the monitor rated your performance. If you scored high, the number appeared onscreen accompanied by a celebratory tune and applause. If it was low, a morose sorry-you-suck melody played, followed by a humiliating laugh track.
After the machine delivered the verdict on my Abba rendition—guilty as charged—I laughed it off, but my heart sank. Part of me was right back in high school, auditioning for Mrs. Best. But the kindhearted Korean woman who had programmed my song leaned in and explained that scores had less to do with pitch than volume, and K-pop superstars often sang their own hits at noraebang and bombed. I was comforted, but I also knew the game had changed, along with the rules of engagement: Sing loud and proud, or be ridiculed by a machine.
I lived in Korea for six years, and I can’t count the number of noraebang doors I darkened or mics I hogged. In Korea, singing isn’t an entertainment postscript or a drunken lark; it might as well be the national sport, and if you want friends, you have to play along—because most Koreans insist they won’t feel bonded to you till they’ve sung with you.
It turned out I was made for the challenge, because I longed to bond and sing. And so I did, with my students—high schoolers and housewives mid-day, college students and businessmen in the evening—and with my Korean pals into the small hours of the morning. Noraebang, my friends explained early on, was the sam-cha, or “third step,” of any respectable night on the town. First came dinner (with drinks), then a bar (more drinks), and finally, the mandatory musical nightcap (with yet more drinks). It wasn’t uncommon for us to stagger out of noraebang after a five-hour stretch—still crooning “Islands in the Stream”—and notice the sun had risen and people were starting their workdays.
At least three noraebangs graced every Korean city block where I lived. They ranged from charmless bare-bones basement cubicles to seedy dives with beer-sticky floors and a permanent cigarette stench, to over-the-top themed rooms (a cave with fake rock walls, an Egyptian room, a glitzy spaceship room) and even VIP lounges with cushy sofas, thumping stereo systems, room to dance, props and wigs, and free ice cream. Finally, in a category of its own were the infamous room salons, where long-legged, short-skirted hostesses poured expensive drinks, made flirtatious conversation, batted false lashes, sat on laps, danced, and sang songs with the exclusively male clientele. From what I gathered, what happened in room salons stayed in room salons.
Still, though the noraebangs themselves were motley, you could depend on one constant: a bizarre backing video. Behold the willowy goddess with feathered blonde hair and flowing prairie dress as she combs her white steed in a pasture while you rock out to Lynyrd Skynyrd; admire the big-busted ladies in unitards and leg warmers who are doing aerobics to Frank Sinatra; watch the moony young lovers under a parasol row a boat across a lake during the Beastie Boys. But more often than not, nature programming graced the monitors, so while we did our best to channel the Spice Girls, a lion mangled a wildebeest.
But the biggest surprise of noraebang was that somewhere along the way, my voice improved. (Let’s be honest, I had nowhere to go except up.) I learned early on that it was crucial to establish a ship-pal-bun, or “number 18”—your standby, the song you could routinely ace. I’m not proud that mine was Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last”—its one redeeming feature being a manageable key—but whenever I sang this treacly tune, the machine rewarded me with sounds of exultation and adoration. After scoring a perfect 100 one night, I knew I’d found my audience, and it was a machine.
When I left Korea after six years, I was no longer The One Who Could Not Sing. Most of us outgrow our adolescent ambitions, but for anyone who aspired to be a songbird—and had her wings clipped—I offer you noraebang, a safe place where you’re cocooned among friends (and booze, ideally). And because noraebang machines stateside don’t give scores, success is measured in enthusiasm. The only singer who fails is the one who refuses to sing.
When I returned from Korea, I moved to San Francisco and ended up marrying a music producer. He claims he loves to hear me belt out tunes in the kitchen, and he even joins me at noraebang occasionally. He sings Justin Timberlake and James Brown, and I choose whatever’s in my key. If I attempt Gladys Night, I can count on him to be my Pip.
I haven’t yet returned to Korea, but wherever I go in the world, I sing. One day in a sunny courtyard in Cuba, I learned a Benny Moré song from an old, almost toothless, cigar-smoking gentleman. We sang and clapped and drank beers together all afternoon. In Nicaragua, my best friend and I performed J-Lo and Janis Joplin in a dark karaoke bar, where we were toasted by locals at the next table and generally treated like American pop stars. In a Peruvian town so sleepy it bordered on unconscious, my writing students and I seized an empty karaoke joint, singing for four hours and capping the night by line-dancing to “Thriller” while the staff watched bemused from the doorway. And a few months ago in Hawaii, I bought a ukulele and learned to play The Hukilau Song, about the ancient art of net fishing. I now sing this ditty to my toddler in the morning before breakfast and even at the table (breakfast, lunch, and dinner).
Turns out singing is like anything else you try: The more you do it, the better you get. And as with most everything else that’s important, what matters is not how well you do it, but how much love you bring to it. Thanks to one mainstay of Korean culture, I haven’t surrendered that love, and I know I never will. So take that, Mrs. Best.