Like a lot of people, I go into a karaoke situation with way more confidence than is justified. With the microphone in hand and the opening beat of some classic pop song thundering through the speakers, I wait for the lyrics to appear on the sing-along screen and think, “I’ve totally got this. The song is in my range, I know the words by heart – I’m gonna blow the doors off this joint, send everyone to their knees. Bring it on!”

Then I belt out the opening line, and everyone starts looking around in confusion, as if the sounds of a fire alarm with dying batteries were filling the room instead of the first verse of “Billy Jean.”

That’s when I remember: Oh yeah! I can’t sing!

When it comes to that initial false confidence, I can tell I’m not alone. A lot of people who do karaoke bellow a tune’s first syllables with the self-assuredness of a young, pre-cocaine-and-sideburns Elvis Presley. Unfortunately, they usually sound like a crow being zapped by an electrified fence, and follow their bold start with a meek, apologetic performance that at times is borderline inaudible. For which we, the audience, are grateful.

This is usually a drunken affair. In fact, were it not for alcohol, karaoke may not even exist, at least not to the extent it does today.

Think about what karaoke is for a second. A half-sloshed reveler gathers up his or her courage, stands at the front of a bar and selects a song performed by an artist who can actually sing. Then they – a person who, based on the law of averages, probably can’t sing at all – proceed to murder the song with vocal chops that make them sound like an owl being strangled by a mob goon with a fistful of piano wire. The audience that endures this display does so because they’re all half in the bag themselves, whooping and chortling their way through a rendition of “Heartbreaker” that could peel the chrome off a doorknob. Then cousin Betty drops the microphone and slinks back to her seat, calculating how long it’ll take for one of her smartphone wielding friends to upload video evidence to YouTube. (Answer: 30 seconds, tops.) To call this bizarre would be an understatement.

Yet there are people who live for this sort of thing. A few years ago, I attended a birthday shindig for a friend, “Bathsheba,” who was then in the throes of a full-on karaoke obsession. The event was held at a bar (where else?), and the crowd was divided into two distinct camps: Those who were excited to sing badly and hear others do the same, and those who huddled at the bar, hunching over sweaty beer mugs and ostensibly hoping they’d be graced with a swift and merciful visit from the Angel of Death. I straddled the line between the two factions, supportive of my friend on the one hand and deeply apprehensive on the other. Perhaps foolishly, I hoped that our wouldbe band of minstrels would choke under pressure, and we could enjoy “Sweet Caroline” as sung by Neil Diamond himself – the way it should be in any just universe.

My hopes were dashed when Bathsheba mounted the stage. She’s a curious one, Bathsheba. An exhibitionist even under ordinary circumstances, when fortified by booze she transforms into an unrestrained diva, basking in the spotlight with the self-assurance of an accomplished pop star – minus the entourage, wealth and record deal. Truth is, when she opens up her pipes to sing, the most positive reaction she gets is from the hippopotamuses at the zoo, who think a lustful mate is advertising for a late-night booty call. She chose to sing a Matchbox Twenty track, “Real World,” and while I’m not typically a pop-rock guy, I actually kind of dig that tune. The problem is that any rendition by an amateur is the equivalent of warping a song in a funhouse mirror: It kind of resembles the original, and you sort of want to enjoy it, but its altered state makes you vaguely uncomfortable. You could tell that certain members of our group wanted to dance or move around, but were overpowered by the desire to watch Bathsheba’s hatchet job. The song was annihilated so thoroughly it was actually a little magical.

Love you, Bathsheba.

The fact that we all made it through the evening is a testament to how powerfully our behavior can be affected by a pitcher of beer. From an early age, you hear warnings about the dangers of alcohol, and rightly so; only a potent substance can alter our perceptions so completely. Under its influence we paint sports logos onto our faces, yell at inanimate objects and wake up next to members of the Pauly Shore Fan Club. Its ability to stretch and bend our judgment is maybe the best explanation we have for why karaoke enjoys such high levels of popularity. It’s either that, or alien beings are slowly filling our atmosphere with a delirium-inducing gas. They’ll soon rob us blind while we sway to a glass-shattering take on “Love is a Battlefield.”

I’ll say this about karaoke, though: It seems to make people happy. That’s more than you can say for some other hobbies, like collecting stamps or rooting for the Chicago Cubs. I’m happy to regard it as a curious oddity, providing there are no karaoke bars within a five-mile radius of my home. My windows rattle easily, and there’s only so much Top 40 butchery a man can take.

Assistant Editor Jeff Lagasse can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 319 or [email protected]