It took me several minutes to decode what I was hearing. At first listen, she sounded like a large bee buzzing some atonal, nightmarish death fugue. Halfway through her “song,” I realized that she was offering all of the patrons of this half-full bar her rendition of Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet.”
The woman was of a sad sort, her mouth in a perpetual frown and her eyes sagging downwards, the weights and trials of her life riding more heavily than most. She was wearing a sort of shirt/smock, extending below her waist but ending in the no-man’s-land of her upper thigh.
Her long black hair, righteously and furiously disheveled, made her look like a well-fed version of a girl from a well who crawls through your television. I’ll call her Janette because I can think of no better name for a woman who remains eternally etched into my memory.
Janette had signed up for karaoke this evening for any number of reasons. I’ll never claim to know why.
She was no singer, she had no other friends in the bar, she did not seem in any way intoxicated and, worst of all, did not look like she was enjoying herself even remotely. Her heavy body swayed to a beat not of the music, and from time to time to punctuate her blank expression, she would close her eyes and furrow her brow with an expression of serious concentration.
I can only imagine that this experience held some deeply spiritual meaning for her, perhaps excising deep-seated demons or atoning for past sins. And on this night, Janette’s “song” had spiritual meaning for me as well. I’ll daresay it wasn’t art, and it was by no means beautiful, but it was brave and honest and true.
Throughout her song (and it’s doubly long the way she sings it), a tremendous Ass was getting wasted at the bar. You know the sort – sporting a collection of befuddling male jewelry, a sneering smile, an odor of cologne, sweat, piss and beer, low-slung shorts with ostensibly “hot” underwear showing, a crooning and pompous voice that carries through your skin and rattles around in your brain.
He berated the woman with every breath he took, sometimes pretending to sing along, sometimes yelling at her to try and distract her, at moments trying to goad other patrons into laughing, always belching out a “what the fuck is this?” at the most inopportune time. The Ass was right, of course, in the very basest of terms.
The woman wasn’t good. Everyone in the bar knew it. She wasn’t close to good. But she was up there.
It was her four minutes. And aside from fundamental rites of courtesy and respect, she deserved her dignity because she had taken the plunge into the unknown and had stood up there under the hot lights with no protection. The Ass shouted, Janette sang, and the rest of us stayed quiet.
The whole world, really, can sit in the booths of that bar. We all fall into types, not necessarily cast in stone but well worn, and we all face such little situations that end up making all the difference.
Maybe you’re the Ass, or at least play one in real life. Maybe you’re a Singer, for good or bad. And maybe, like most of us, you’re a Sitter – waiting in the quiet, not wanting to disturb too much, not easily angered, moved, frightened or inspired. We’re the aw-gee-shucks people, not wanting to cause a fuss lest we get caught up in something messy.
But the world needs Singers. It needs Asses, too, to give us perspective.
We need people who aren’t afraid to be foolish, to be absurd, to be wrong and gorgeously inept. It takes a lot of guts to suck, a lot more guts to be great.
And it takes no guts – in fact it requires a decided lack of any guts at all – to be an Ass. The lights of karaoke shine brightest on the stage for a reason; they illuminate what deserves to be seen regardless of quality but entirely dependent on courage, be it liquid or otherwise.
Did I enjoy Jeanette’s Eminem rendition? Absolutely not. It was painful. But powerful.
There is a hell of a lot more to everyday living than carrying a pitch and singing on key. It’s about showing up and scraping together some meaning for yourself in a world that’ll be happy to tell you that you suck.
When all is said and done in this life, take a bow whether they’re booing or cheering, if only to check that you’ve tied your shoes.