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Sugar, we’re going down singing

Don’t let Karaoke Kid become another “Blank Space” downtown.

(Photo courtesy of Karaoke Kid.)

I have never been to The Kollege Klub, but I have been to the KK—the Real F’ing KK.

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Karaoke Kid has been a staple of downtown Madison nightlife since long before I arrived on the isthmus and has resisted the tests of time for many years. In its three-ring binder song books lie some of my most cherished Madison memories. Even in these days of quarantine I often find myself fantasizing about returning for a sake bomb and a song. 

But in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Karaoke Kid’s management has announced that the establishment is on the brink of closing for good. They’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign with a $15,000 goal to keep their doors open. They’ve pledged to donate any additional money to Urban Triage—one of the organizations leading ongoing protests against police brutality in Madison—and to UW-Madison’s Odyssey Project for low-income adults. 

The bar, which is owned by Akira Ishikawa, who also owns the nearby Ramen Kid, has been struggling since Madison (and the rest of the nation) went into lockdown earlier this year. In an interview with Channel 3000, manager Jarrett Chapin said even with the bar now open, he cannot afford to pay staff and is essentially running the business on his own. On top of that, the bar was robbed during quarantine

The pandemic will inevitably and tragically wipe out a lot of businesses in the narrow-margin world of bars, restaurants and venues. Each will be a sad loss, but there’s no place in Madison that can match the beautiful chaotic energy of the Kid. 

For those who haven’t graced Karaoke Kid with their presence, let me set the scene for you.

It’s 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night. Maybe you’ve just left Paul’s Club and the rest of the State Street scene, or find yourself stumbling out of Wando’s after finally finishing that fishbowl, nonetheless, you find yourself on University Ave. and it’s time to Choose Your Own Adventure. Your options are: go home (no one has ever regretted going to bed at a reasonable time, good for you!), make a mad dash across the street to grab some Ian’s before the line blows up, or head into the nearest bar with no line—Karaoke Kid. 

Now, this might be a bar on the border of university territory, but your fake ID is no good here. The bouncers are strict, sometimes overly so, depending on the night, but such is the price of entrance to this dark and dreamy secondary world. 

The crowd at the KK is a grab bag of just about everything Madison has to offer. The regulars are well past their college years and usually stick close to the bar, except when it’s their turn to take the stage. On any given night at least one bachelor or bachelorette party will appear and do everything to make their presence known. Whether it’s the fact that it’s the only bar in Madison that’s pretty much all about karaoke, or perhaps it’s simply out of convenience, Karaoke Kid brings all kinds of Madisonians out to play.

The bar itself is a decent size, stretching nearly across an entire wall of the establishment. The staff work swiftly and know what they’re doing. The whole space glows with blue and purple lights while neon writing illuminates drink specials. You’ll want to get one of those bright green drinks with the gummy worm that the woman next to you ordered, because…it’s just one of those nights! Order a jello shot or two (or five) and you’ll be on your way to karaoke ready.

When it’s time to choose a song, buckle up because it is going to be a level three side quest within your adventure. 

One of the first songs I ever sang at the KK (or anywhere for that matter) was “First Date” by the incomparable Blink-182. Yes, I was on a date. No, it wasn’t our first, but it was the first time I was excited to be at a bar on University Ave. Though the process for choosing a song has changed in the past year, my experiences went something like this:

Step one: Find a binder. Yes, one of the many three-ring binders that float about the bar with song choices. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the one that’s sorted alphabetically by artist, and god help you if you pick up the book that’s sorted according to some scrambled mix of chronology and the alphabet. 

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Step two: Avoid the clichés. There’s a 110 percent chance that someone has already played “Mr. Brightside,” and please don’t even think about “Bohemian Rhapsody.” If you find yourself considering I Prevail’s punk cover of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” stop yourself right now and reevaluate because it’s already been played. Twice. Acceptable clichés include: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Uncle Kracker’s “Drift Away,” and, of course, “Welcome To The Black Parade” by the only band that matters, My Chemical Romance. 

Step three: Write your song down and pay your dues. The number one complaint I’ve seen amongst Karaoke Kid’s otherwise banal Facebook and Yelp reviews is the DJ’s propensity to tailor the karaoke playlist to put whoever “tips” them the most first. It’s not a great system. But once you figure out how much it actually takes to get your song first or second, you’ll be singing in no time. 

(Full disclosure: Karaoke Kid switched to an app-based song catalog in 2019. Whether or not the “tipping” system has carried on, I cannot say.)

One of the special things about karaoke bars is that your night’s outcome is entirely up to you. If you’ve arrived with a group of your close friends, you know you’re in for a wild ride. Maybe you’ll actually sing that Adele duet you’ve been practicing! Did you arrive with the person you’ve been sleeping with lately? Is their ex also there? Is that ex singing TLC’s “No Scrubs” directly at you? Hop up on stage and join the fun—viva la karaoke, baby!

The truly magical thing about Karaoke Kid is that absolutely no one gives a fuck about whether you can sing or not. The quality of your voice means nothing (but shoutout to the genuinely incredible vocalists who own the stage every now and then). The quality and intensity of your performance is everything. The bar feeds off the energy of its performers. If you’re having a good time on stage, strangers will become your biggest fans. 

Karaoke Kid is a special place on the Isthmus where I could unabashedly sing Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Amy Winehouse and so, so much more with a full heart and strangers backing me up. (Shoutout to the bouncer who was always down to sing Panic! At The Disco with me.) 

If you’re not into singing, get ready for a beautiful night of people-watching. The table farthest from the stage actually has a pretty great view and bar patrons tend to leave you alone. So even if you’ve come to the party mid-acid trip and in your pajamas, there’s a place for you at Karaoke Kid.

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