Aug 22

[lifestyle] All 90's Visual Kei Karaoke

Live shows are fun. I guess. Watching a group of musicians standing up high on a stage, surrounded by giant, altar-like speakers, inhaling waves upon waves of screams from the adoring public, going home with a sense that you made a difference in the lives of more people than the average person meets in his or her lifetime. It’s a glorious, beautiful, and magnificent feeling for the musicians. While that’s all well and good, I can’t help but wonder: what about my time in the spotlight? What about my glory? What about my fans?

Ok, I know I don’t have any fans. In fact, I don’t have any discernible talent in terms of music. In all honesty, the same goes for the majority of fans. However, that doesn’t stop us from craving the attention and approval from the masses, even if on a slightly smaller scale.

That’s why the All 90’s Visual Kei Karaoke Event was invented.

On Sunday, August 8, one hundred visual kei fans gathered in Shinjuku, Tokyo, for a karaoke extravaganza rivaling that of American Idol. The event was organized on the Japanese social networking site, Mixi, with a strict maximum capacity and a few no-nonsense rules attached. The idea was simple: gather fans of visual kei, let them float between the over twenty reserved rooms, and encourage them to sing to their hearts content.

I arrived at around 12:30, anxious, scared, and awkward around the veteran karaoke-goers. This was the ninth official event, which meets every month and welcomes people to come as frequently as possible. I shyly crept up to the sign up table, paid my 4500 yen, which included the izakaya (Japanese-style tavern) excursion afterwards. Otherwise, the karaoke itself would only have been 1300 yen with all-you-can-drink soft drinks, since people under the legal drinking age of twenty were present.

Once I filled out a nametag, I sat down gingerly on a sofa, waiting for the event to start. Commence people watching. In walked a man in a long skirt, followed by a young woman dressed like Tatsurou from Mucc. The man flailed his arms at a few people, who excitedly greeted him before he turned to the Tatsurou cosplayer and asked, “Are you a girl?” She responded with, “Are you a boy?” And thus ensued an afternoon of gender confusion.

All joking aside, one of the biggest surprises of the day was the sheer percentage of men. At live shows or signings for many visual kei bands, you would be lucky to find one uncomfortable young scrap being dragged kicking and screaming by his girlfriend. But the total attendees of this event were about 50% male, many of whom are working adults.

Once 1 pm rolled around, the head organizer of the event alerted everyone’s attention with a resounding speech, telling the group to have fun and stay civil. We were then let loose to find rooms of our choosing where we could rock out until we got bored, and then mosey on to a different room.

Since the explanation on the Mixi page was long and my attention span for reading Japanese is short, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in terms of how the rooms were organized other than they would be broken up into bands. There were five Dir en grey rooms, two L’Arc-en-Ciel rooms, two Sid rooms, a Kuroyume/Sads/Kiyoharu room, a Janne Da Arc room, two misshitsukei rooms (for bands such as Mucc, Merry, and caligari), a 90’s band room (basically for miscellaneous 90’s bands), several “free” rooms (for singing all of the above), and a couple rooms where people could just chill and not sing at all. Signs printed on A4 paper indicated which room was which.

I watched people B-line for their favorite bands’ rooms, while others, like myself, wandered about, admiring the sheer number of rooms available. Since the doors were made of foggy glass, you could get an idea of how many people were in each room. Maximum capacity per room was roughly five, though most people pushed it with six or seven, the extra one or two people sitting on tables or laps. One of the Dir en grey rooms had a capacity of about twenty, but I feared my life would be snuffed out should I be surrounded by that many Dir fans.

Still, I decided to warm up with Dir en grey. I figured I’d sing the few songs I knew well enough before I got bored and made my way for greater and better things. I peeked into one of the many Dir rooms to find three people already inside. I hesitantly knocked, not sure about the protocol for jumping in a karaoke room with strangers. One of the men in a faux h.Naoto getup waved me in just as “the final” was starting up. I cursed in my head because that was the song I planned on singing.

While the faux-Naoto guy wailed through “the final” in a half-nasal, half-Kyo inspired groan, the other two people introduced themselves. They asked me where I was from, how long I had been in Japan, and all the questions a Japanese person usually asks foreigners who come to any social gathering. This became a trend for the afternoon, but was entirely expected.

I put “[KR] Cube” in, an old favorite of mine. Half singing and half laughing at the PV, I nervously plowed through the song as the others glared silently at the screen. The general understanding in these events is that you do not sing along with anyone unless they blatantly welcome it. Singing along breaks two rules: one, that you are not allowed to put in more songs until your song has come up and two, that you cannot show off by being louder or more skilled than the person holding the microphone. While these rules make sense, it often causes awkward minutes of people staring at the screen or the wall while they wait for you to shut your pie hole.

Before the instrumental portion of the song even finished, I cancelled “[KR] Cube” and bolted from the room. I wasn’t pleased with my performance, but I was even less pleased with the prospect of having to listen to more people nasal their way through Dir en grey’s discography. I peaked in the Kuroyume/Sads/Kiyoharu room quickly, sang “Rozario to Bara” to two very uncomfortable gentlemen and left as quickly as I came.

Was this how it was going to be for five hours? Awkward glare after awkward glare and crap vocals? It’s one thing to have to hear your friends suck, but to have to applaud complete strangers for butchering your favorite song is a completely different predicament. I needed to hear at least one person who could sing in-tune with some amount of conviction.

That’s when I headed for the L’Arc-en-Ciel room. I peered in, greeted by three shining faces. They waved me in eagerly as one woman was singing “flower.” On came a sigh of relief. She had a good voice, but beside that, she was smiling as the other two clapped their hands and mouthed the words. When it came to the bridge, the two without the microphone belted out the harmony. I squealed with joy and delight like a child eating her first cotton candy. Once she finished, everyone clapped. They introduced themselves as the next song started, this time sung by another woman, whose voice was perhaps even better.

After another round, two men came in. Once they stepped up to the plate, I knew this was more than just karaoke. It had become a Hyde-off, the rare, unspoken competition between L’Arc fans of who can make their voice the most Hyde-like. The set list was riddled with some of L’Arc’s most melodramatic and epic vocals. From the impossible range of “snow drop” to the engrossed emotion of “Kasou,” we gave it our all. The second woman practically cried into the microphone with “My dear” while one of the men smothered “Time whatever.” I arrogantly belted my way through “Hoshizora,” but I fear it was more Bono and Cher’s love child than Hyde, which caused my ultimate downfall. I humbly admitted defeat by bouncing through “Blurry Eyes.”

And like any honorable soldier, I marched on to the next battle: the 90’s Visual Kei room. The four-person capacity space was already full, but I managed to squeeze my ass between a goth man with curly locks and a girl in a babydoll dress. I wasn’t sure who was more feminine. I put in Buck-Tick’s “Misshitsu,” and waited as they spouted out Pierrot songs. I felt a complaint welling in my chest. Sure, Pierrot was around in the 90’s, but the songs they were singing were definitely from the 21st century. I only made it through my Buck-Tick song and Luna Sea’s “Rosier” before I gave up. After all, what is karaoke without someone getting themselves blue in the face from singing “Rosier”?

There was only about an hour left and my head was starting to throb. Maybe I’m not as young as I used to be, but I knew I’d gone for longer karaoke sessions before without even batting an eye. I needed my second wind and I needed it before I gave up. Hearing what could only have been a bunch of men barking in unison, I headed back for the Kiyoharu Bands Room. There was this tugging sensation in my primordial mind to go in there angrily shout sexual harassment at nothing in particular.

I was greeted by three unassuming men who were in the middle of “C.Y. Head.” They were laughing and pumping their fists in the air as the one holding the microphone recited the MCs from Kuroyume’s Live at Shinjuku Loft 1997. (I am not ashamed to admit that I knew exactly what it was from.) I did a reprise of my earlier “Rozario to Bara,” which got a much more rambunctious response than a few hours before. But for the most part, the songs were a group effort, with the people not holding the microphone playing the part of audience slash back-up vocals. We all sang Sads’ “Cracker’s Baby” at five times the speed, completing the song in under a minute before finalizing the evening with a slightly teary version of Kuroyume’s “Like a Angel.”

Our number was up and it was time to call it a karaoke session well sung. Everyone gathered in the lobby, a few people exchanging contact information, others asking around if people were going to the izakaya afterwards. My head was spinning and throbbing, but to a good beat that would last well into the next day. It may have been the hang over after the izakaya, but I had come into the All 90’s Visual Kei Karaoke Event a scared, lonely foreigner and came out a dizzy, adrenaline-pumped rocker.