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We Will Rock You

The four-day, three-night tournament, held last July, was thebrainchild of Kari Hujanen, a Finnish high school physical educationteacher and former speed skater who was three-tenths of a second awayfrom reaching the 1972 Winter Olympics. “If [I’d been] one step faster,there wouldn’t be a Karaoke World Championships,” he says, with minimalregret, in the cramped trailer where he runs the contest with his wifeand daughter. After hanging up his skates, he opened a restaurant,dabbled in politics (he still serves on the Heinola city council), andfinally became a teacher; it was on a 1999 field trip to Spain thatHujanen first sang a karaoke version of the traditional Spanish lovesong “Amor, Amor.” “It was more exciting than skating,” he says. Soonhe was entering local competitions and national contests; then hethought, “Why isn’t there a karaoke Olympics?”

In search of contestants, Hujanen, 54, reached out via theInternet to karaoke clubs as far away as Australia, South Africa, andthe United States. He even contacted venues in Japan-where karaoke wasinvented in the 1970s, so that businessmen could unwind by gatheringdrunkenly in bars to warble mistranslated Neil Diamond lyrics. ButJapan declined to send any singers to Finland to compete for the topprize of 1,100 euros (plus a trophy and a CD boom box). “They might bepissed off that I thought of this first,” Hujanen asserts.

Atthe fairgrounds, the smell of frying sausage floats through the air. Abooth-lined midway christened Karaoke Street is the contest’s maindrag, where vendors sell Karjala draft beer and bootleg sing-along CDsof Kylie Minogue’s greatest hits. To the right is the rehearsal tent,where contestants and audience members can practice and where the WorldDonut Eating Championships are simultaneously being held. To the leftis a crowded beer tent, and in the middle is center stage, where 70 ofEurope’s most dedicated-if not most talented-karaoke singers will sooncompete.

When the Karaoke World Championships open on Thursday, July24 at 6 p.m., the contestants outnumber the spectators. Hujanen, theomnipresent host, begins by introducing the judges-a rotatingfive-person panel composed of music professionals and educators, aviolin player, and an opera singer-who will score the competitors onexpression, stage presence, tempo, entertainment value, and pitchcontrol. Had events gone according to Hujanen’s original plan,countries from every time zone would have held their own tournaments tochoose their competitors for the KWC, but come show time, anyone withthe guts and 30 euros is allowed to compete. The small, docile crowd ispopulated with the parents and children of contestants, as well asdrunks, old ladies toting dogs in their purses, and tattooed Finnishrock kids, all of whom watch as karaoke-spinning disc jockeys (referredto as “KJs”), truck drivers, and bouncers take turns performing. A30-year-old Finnish woman named Sari Mynttinen explains the lure ofprofessional karaoke: “When I was three, I said to my mama, ‘I’m goingto be a singer,’ but Mama always said, ‘You have to get a real job.’I’ve been a KJ now for nine years. I own my equipment, and I am asinger, even without a band.”

Two of the first ten songs are “It’s Raining Men,” andeight of them are performed by Finns. Despite Hujanen’s invitations,only England, Norway, Austria, Sweden, Latvia, and Poland have sentperformers. “It’s not who didn’t come, but who did,” he says. Indeed,contestant No. 11 is Armi Flink, a gypsy from Lapland who came to thecontest with her four sisters, and the sweat she generates during herstomping, snarling rendition of “I Will Survive” smears her heavymakeup across her face. When Flink has finished her song, the applauseis so relentless it drowns out contestant No. 12’s second chorus. (Thescores she receives from the judges, as with all other contestants, arekept secret.)

Theaudience swells to perhaps 300 as the night progresses, and in thestands, Alek Styrna beats an imaginary drum, blows an air horn, andcheers for the other performers. He saves his loudest ovation forChristine Aas Hals, a 23-year-old Norwegian who sings Shakira’s”Whenever, Wherever” while wearing an elaborate brown-suedebra-and-skirt combo that’s as tight as her choreography. She doesn’tnecessarily sound better than the Latvian woman who aped Madonna or theyoung Swedish man who crooned “Un-Break My Heart,” but she puts on ashow: Aas Hals spins around, slaps her thighs, and arches her back withsuch force that her breasts pop out of her tie top. Styrna opens withArt Company’s “Susanna,” a catchy bit of chorus-heavy Euro-schlock thathe sings in Finnish (the lyrics, written out phonetically, hang aroundhis neck on a shoelace). During the chorus, he improvises, “Christine,Christine / I’m crazy loving you,” and leads the audience in a”Christine, Christine” call and response. He swings from thescaffolding, jumps into the crowd, and makes his love oect blush.

“I feel like a movie star,” says Aas Hals, giggling on thebalcony of the plush Hotel Kumpeli as her personal stylist attends toher frizzy blonde curls. Dressed in a Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt,Billabong surf shorts, and stilettos, she picks at a bowl of freshfruit and reflects on last night’s performance. “When I’m old and havewrinkled little breasts, I’ll be able to tell my grandkids that I oncewas Shakira,” she says. Aas Hals traveled to the competition with hermanager and stylist, while 26 of her countrymen-including her brotherand their divorced parents-took a 26-hour bus ride to watch herperform. A construction worker and aspiring pop star, Aas Halsbankrolls her posse with sponsorship money from a Norwegian-basedkaraoke website. More than anything, she wants to be a respectedsinger/songwriter like her idol, Bjork. “I know what it takes to getthat big break,” Aas Hals says. “This contest is basically a rehearsal,a step on the way to becoming a star.”

Shedidn’t always sing karaoke. “I thought it was so stupid,” she says, “Imean, all you do is follow a dumb bouncing ball.” Aas Hals left Norwayat age 20, because her parents wanted her to be a doctor or anengineer, and auditioned for Stockholm’s exclusive Kulturama musicschool. “All I knew was I wanted to be a singer. I had no idea how tostart.” Even though she was rejected by the university, she moved toStockholm anyway, where she encountered some girls she had met at herKulturama audition. They took pity and brought her to a bar. “They hadall gotten in [to the school],” Aas Hals says, plucking a grape fromits stem with her teeth. “There was a karaoke contest that night, and Iwon-I didn’t think karaoke was stupid anymore.”

With a thousand spectators crowding into Friday night’ssemifinals, contestant Jan-Mikael Pennanen, 36, stashes a bottle ofbrandy in the back pocket of his black leather jeans. “I told my wife,’If I pass out, just pour some over my face,'” he says, but hisenergetic rendition of A-ha’s “Take On Me” scores big with theincreasingly animated crowd. In the audience, Noora Lehtinen, thewinner of Finland’s trials for the World Championships, has beenchain-smoking since the show began. The 22-year-old has short, spikyblonde hair and wears the sleeves of her T-shirt rolled up to show offa warrior eagle tattoo on her right arm. Pale and shaky before takingthe stage, Lehtinen is confident as she sings “Wind Beneath My Wings”before a mob that has grown to nearly 3,000. Afterward, over a beer,Lehtinen watches Aas Hals sprawl out on the stage. Tonight, she isperforming Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” in a low-cut white weddingdress, acting out the lyrics as she sings. She feigns being lost andbrings her hand over her eyes as if searching for her missing lover.She gets down on all fours and does two barrel rolls before hitting herpiercing last note. “It’s just too much,” Lehtinen says dismissively.”There’s something ugly about the way she performs.” The three rows ofNorwegians in matching yellow T-shirts all waving their small Norwegianflags would probably disagree.

At 1:15 a.m., the Finnish sky casts a dull silver spotlighton Kari Hujanen as he invites the survivors onstage, one by one. Styrnaholds his head in his hands. Britain’s Uche Eke paces backstage. A pairof Austrian contestants sit together in the front row, holding hands.When Aas Hals is called from the Summer Theatre’s last row, she jumpsup and down and puts on a bright yellow T-shirt like her fellowNorwegians. A disqualified Finnish teenager runs onto Karaoke Street intears. The Austrian couple are incensed that they failed to make thecut. “This is the championship of Heinola,” says the female contestant,clenching her fists. “It has fuck-all to do with the world.”

Eke spends Saturday afternoon inside the Summer Theatre,pacing the wet grass. His weekend has already been monumental. He hadhis face in the local paper even before performing his first song,hooked up with Aas-Hal’s six-foot Swedish personal stylist before hissecond, and had the crowd chanting his name before his third. “I wokeup famous in Finland,” says Eke, 31. “Maybe it’s because I’m the onlyblack person here.” He has a harmonica-size scar on top of his head,which he vaguely explains is the result of a pair of rusty scissors andan Italian ex-girlfriend. “That’s why I never tried properly singing,”he says, pointing to the discoloration where his hair has begun to growback. “I like karaoke because you can disappear.”

Born in Wales, Eke moved to Nigeria in the mid-’80s, wherehe escaped a kidnapping attempt and survived a hydrochloric acidattack. “There were some ritualistic killings,” he says. “My mother iswhite, and people thought if they cut off my head, money would come outof my mouth.” His parents divorced, and he received a scholarship tostudy aerospace engineering in Virginia, but he developed severeallergies. “I called myself Fish Face because my eyes were puffed outfrom the pollen, and my scar used to bleed.” So he moved to England,where he eventually got a job working in the IT department at CharlesSchwab. He began singing and playing bass guitar in a church choir.When he was promoted to Schwab’s international desk, a coworker’s wifesuggested he sign up for the KWC. Then, in February 2003, Schwabannounced that his department would be eliminated. Shortly after hereturns to England, he will be unemployed. “It’s make-or-break time forme!”

Asthe KWC finals begin, the contest has been transformed. For the Finnishspectators, who dance in front of the stage with their children atoptheir shoulders, this is the Super Bowl and an Abba reunion concertrolled into one. Even the eliminated singers stand on the benches tosnap photographs of and get autographs from their favorite contestants.The ten remaining performers have elevated their shows as well: One’sdressed like a feline to perform “Memory,” from Cats, and another wearsa slicker and totes an umbrella for the umpteenth encore of “It’sRaining Men.” Alone backstage, Aas Hal is decked out in a blue sequinedgown. “I haven’t had any rest, my voice hurts, I’m tired,” she says.”If I can’t handle this, how am I going to become a star?” When shetakes the stage, her notes are much shorter than those in her previousnumbers, and her cover of Whitney Houston’s “Run to You” doesn’t getanyone dancing. She shimmies across the stage and misses some lyrics toaudibly catch her breath. When she freezes on the song’s abrupt finalbeat, her face is a mixture of determination and relief.

Eke is the contest’s final performer, and by the time hetakes the stage in his black suit and white turtleneck, the sausagevendors from Karaoke Street have joined the 5,000 fans on their feet.Even the judges applaud when he stands center stage, bows, says”kiitos” (Finnish for “thank you”), and begins Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Meto the Moon.” He vamps just as Frank himself would have, inserting highnotes and laughing at himself when he fails to affect a low bass. Whenhe claps his hands above his head, the crowd follows. Eke finishes hisperformance by making pistols with his hands, shooting into the crowd.”I love you! Thank you, Heinola,” he shouts. When the music stops, hesings the last bars a cappella. “I love you, Heinola. You flew me tothe moon!”

Afterward,the ten finalists assemble onstage and lock arms like it’s the lastnight of summer camp, and Kari Hujanen announces the winners withparental pride. In the women’s category, Noora Lehtinen finishesfourth, her thin smile barely distracting from the death stare in hereyes, and the winner is a hard-rocking 23-year-old Brit named DanniGadby, who earned her trophy with a spirited, fist-pumping performanceof “I’m Every Woman.” Christine Aas Hals finishes third. “I think I’vefaced the pressure that a real singer feels,” she says. “It wasn’talways fun, but this is a good opportunity to determine which side youare on. Do you continue or move home? Get a real job or write your ownsongs? I want to leave karaoke; I just don’t know if I can.” In themen’s category, Alek Styrna takes fifth place; he grabs the microphoneto invite the entire audience to an after-party. Jan-Mikael Pennanentakes third, and second place goes to a hulking, sweet-singing Finn.But the KWC belonged to one man, and the crowd is enthusiasticallychanting “U-che, U-che,” before it is announced that theabout-to-be-out-of-work crooner from England has taken first prize.

At a postperformance party at the Casino, a club justoutside the fairgrounds in the shadow of center stage, Styrna isdancing with the girls who filled the KWC’s front row, Aas Hals isburied in a booth full of Norwegians, and Eke is sandwiched betweenGadby and Aas Hals’ stylist. The sun changes from gray to gold as thecontestants reunite at the bar, and all the squinty, drowsy eyes in theroom are focused on this improbable group as they bring their hands andfeet together to reproduce the boom-boom-clap, boom-boom-clappercussion that another over-the-top band from another over-the-top eramade synonymous with victory. One last time, the karaoke champions ofthe world are going to sing.