Grin & Shimmy
People get an ass-backwards impression when I say I’m a backup singer at a karaoke bar in Orlando. What they think: bleak, drab, desperate. What it is: karaoke writ large. It’s a full band with a repertoire hundreds of songs long—White Snake to Whitney Houston, Adele to Aerosmith. It’s a black-painted stage looming above the audience, computer-controlled lighting and fog machines, wall of booming speakers, two floors of table seating with tea candle centerpieces and leather-bound cocktail menus, table service from two bars, but also translucent Solo cups and pleather upholstery, minus the handful of reservation-only booths with tufted red velvet backrests.
It’s a simulated spectacle of a place, right outside the gates of Universal, among a town’s worth of themed bars and restaurants and shops. Every inch oversized and gaudy. So, exactly what you expect from evening entertainment when you’ve hauled your family down to this fantasy land for a week of packaged vacation. Not that I’m against it—I’ve always kind of adored the gimmick of it all, the plastic sheen.
Tonight’s sign-ups have our setlist bouncing from N*Sync to Bon Jovi to Bonnie Raitt to Guns ‘N’ Roses to Sir Mix-A-Lot and beyond. But we’re always ready for whatever the night brings. The surprise of it, the not knowing, is a thrill. A lot of good singers climb up on our stage. A lot of bad ones too. But no matter what, my job is to grin and shimmy behind them. Sing the oohs, the ahhs, the chorus. Sing loud when they suck, step back a bit when they don’t. I like that part. Not being mean, just lending a subtle hand.
I like that part. Not being mean, just lending a subtle hand.
There’s two of us backup singers, me and Darlene. She’s been here since the place opened a decade ago. She calls the shots, reigns over the band. Our drummer, Ted, has the hots for Darlene. She has the hots for Al, our emcee, but she’s also into Jimmy on guitar. I’d climb Jimmy like a tree if he weren’t off limits to me. I’d lace my fingers into his shaggy brown hair and hold on tight. But he’s Darlene’s toy. She uses him to make Al look her way. One time Jimmy tried to put the moves on me and Darlene stonewalled me for a week, which meant the whole band did the same. I learned.
The woman loves a uniform, so she and I dress in all black and wear matching shoes. High-high heels. To prop our asses up, she says. But Darlene picks the shoes and Darlene’s taste is terrible in that she never seems to remember which cheapo brands of heels on Amazon are always, every damn time, horrible toe-busters. Good thing I keep a perpetual pedicure going so nobody but the nail tech can see the bruises like ink stains under the nails of both my big toes.
We’ve choreographed steps for every last song in the band’s repertoire. Finger snap, hip dip, shift of weight from left leg to right with plenty of sass. Over two hundred unique little dances created and practiced over the past few years, the two of us in sweatpants in Darlene’s ratty studio apartment, our bare feet scrubbing across long-trampled beige carpet, sagging couch pushed back against the bed to make room, Darlene repeating Great, let’s go again hour after hour. She’s a taskmaster, but the practice is worth it. I know we look good moving together under the lights.
Lately, I’ve started wondering if she’ll ever quit, find some new job, let me step up into the lead role. But I think she loves the power too much. I think she’d hang on here until she’s sixty, if they’d let her. So maybe I’m the one who needs to hightail it out of here. Problem is, I almost love this gig. Can’t help it. When I’m on this stage—lights hot on my face, body moving like liquid, voice strong in my throat—I don’t feel the bruises, don’t care how rigid Darlene’s little world is. I sing and I move and it feels good.
But if I’m honest, there’s a real sadness here most nights. Like the first few singers tonight. The two thirty-something guys singing Beastie Boys together, drunker than they thought, who couldn’t keep up with the scrolling lyrics of “Fight for Your Right.” Or the shy, pretty girl with obvious dreams of stardom who sang Adele but couldn’t hit a single note. Those performances are the reason some people come in to watch. They want to see somebody flop, choke, crash, and burn. The stage lights don’t blind me completely, so I see when the crowd snickers like their own talent would’ve blown the whole world away if only they’d bothered to sign up. I want to grab my mic and rage at their meanness, invite them up to show us all how it’s done.
I saw this next guy coming from a mile away—a dude named Ken signing up to sing “Free Fallin’” meant he’d be the kind trying to recapture something lost. And here Ken is, a balding gut-first dude wobbling up on stage in pleated khakis, broadcasting his special vacation wildness via the faded Hawaiian shirt you know he’s packed for every family trip since ‘98. This kind of guy tends to holler Journey or Def Leppard or the Clash or whatever else made him feel free and dangerous at seventeen, blasting recklessly down back roads, his favorite weird-pretty artsy girl white-knuckling the passenger seat cushion beside him.
Ken’s up here yowling the song of his youth and it’s clear he can’t quite fathom how he wound up so frumpy and tired when what he imagined for himself back then was steering away from home with that cool girl, blazing some uncommon trail—not splitting up after graduation, not trudging through the safe degree in business, not marrying the sensible girl in pearls, not sitting flat-assed in a desk chair for thirty years to fund the kids’ activities and devices and the bathroom renovations his wife’s realtor friend insists they must do.
He’s singing to save his life and I’ve got to smile and snap my fingers like he’s succeeding, like I’m not utterly terrified of stepping right into the ragged stumbling footprints he laid down when he lurched fast away from the dreamy-wild life he maybe could’ve lived if he’d tried.
Grin and shimmy, I tell myself. I repeat it like a prayer, like a mantra with the power to lift me right up out of this place, carry me high above the theme parks, the black swoops of crisscrossing highway, the sprawl, all the goddamn sod grass and palm trees, carry me off and drop me blinking into some brand new landscape far away from here.
Grin and shimmy, I tell myself.
Annie Frazier is the social media editor of Pithead Chapel. Her writing has appeared in Hypertro-phic Lit, Longleaf Review, Crack the Spine, among others.
Illustration by Carson McNamara.