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The Deadliest Karaoke Song

The New York Times gets a lot of grief for treating obscure trends as news. This time, however, they stumbled upon what seems to be a horrifying trend — a rash of killings at karaoke bars centered aroundthe song “My Way” by Frank Sinatra.

The authorities do not know exactly how many people have been killed warbling “My Way” in karaoke bars over the years in the Philippines, or how many fatal fights it has fueled. But the news media have recorded at least half a dozen victims in the past decade and includes them in a subcategory of crime dubbed the “My Way Killings.”

The killings have produced urban legends about the song and left Filipinos groping for answers. Are the killings the natural byproduct of the country’s culture of violence, drinking and machismo? Or is there something inherently sinister in the song?

I’ve seen the crowd get rowdy at these events before, but I’ve never seen anyone stabbed (which is surprising, in retrospect).

My guess is that this is simply a fluke. A few coincidental attacks caught someone’s attention, then they were on the lookout for more. Pretty soon you find that the song has a sinister power ascribed to it. Some would beg to differ, though.

Others, noting that other equally popular tunes have not provoked killings, point to the song itself. The lyrics, written by Paul Anka for Mr. Sinatra as an unapologetic summing up of his career, are about a tough guy who “when there was doubt,” simply “ate it up and spit it out.” Butch Albarracin, the owner of Center for Pop, a Manila-based singing school that has propelled the careers of many famous singers, was partial to what he called the “existential explanation.”

“ ‘I did it my way’ — it’s so arrogant,” Mr. Albarracin said. “The lyrics evoke feelings of pride and arrogance in the singer, as if you’re somebody when you’re really nobody. It covers up your failures. That’s why it leads to fights.”

One of the most interesting facets of this karaoke culture is burried deep in the article, though.

But in karaoke bars where one song costs 5 pesos, or a tenth of a dollar, strangers often rub shoulders, sometimes uneasily. A subset of karaoke bars with G.R.O.’s — short for guest relations officers, a euphemism for female prostitutes — often employ gay men, who are seen as neutral, to defuse the undercurrent of tension among the male patrons. Since the gay men are not considered rivals for the women’s attention — or rivals in singing, which karaoke machines score and rank — they can use humor to forestall macho face-offs among the patrons.

In one such bar in Quezon City, next to Manila, patrons sing karaoke at tables on the first floor and can accompany a G.R.O. upstairs. Fights often break out when customers at one table look at another table “the wrong way,” said Mark Lanada, 20, the manager.

“That’s the biggest source of tension,” Mr. Lanada said. “That’s why every place like this has a gay man like me.”

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Sweet Caroline

I admit that I’ve always avoided Sweet Caroline at karaoke. We’ve always had our group songs that we do. Love Train. What’s So Funny (’bout Peace Love And Understanding). But last night we had a big, drunken, rowdy gang taking over the Sudsy Mug, and there was no way we could do anything with too many words. We tackled Elvis earlier in the night, but this was Joe McCall’s birthday, and we were closing out the night.

So the question came down. What song do we do? There wasn’t time to go through the book. It’s a massive sea of songs to troll through. At times like this you need a hit. This will be the song that all the barflies and hipsters and casualties will have running through their heads when they leave.

I’m not saying I made the right call. We could maybe have done a passable version of the Beatle’s Birthday. It could have been the night for a wild card, like Wagon Wheel. But it felt like something big needed to be done.

So Sweet Caroline it was. This was some “in case of emergency break glass” type shit. We gathered around the mics and started into one of the weirdest classic pop songs in the cannon. It’s half Vegas style schmaltz and half jazz age burlesque. There’s a slow build. The chords methodically build up the scale. Then there’s release. We’re all at the top of our lungs and the song hits it’s stride. It was drunken karaoke melee at its best. The song is a roller-coaster and everyone in the bar was along for the ride. Good times never seemed so good.

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