Despite the vocal heroics, Mr. Huffman’s team, called FELT!, didn’t reach the night’s finals.
Another team, called Sexy, Bass’d on a True Story, was just as determined. Wearing a wig and tuxedo, Tristen Neal did a mean imitation of James Brown in “Sex Machine” mode, performing splits and dancing with someone in a cardboard robot outfit representing the titular machine.
Mr. Neal’s team didn’t win, either.
Such are the antics of the best karaoke leagues in Washington, D.C., which has become the nation’s team-karaoke capital. Wackily-named teams of six to eight adults have started taking over bars and performing a pageant of pop songs—often silly, sometimes completely unironic—in head-to-head competitions before a live audience.
Some performers can really belt a tune, while others compensate with major theatricality. To get an edge, singers often dress up in often homemade costumes. They either sing a song’s original lyrics or write spoof versions to fit with their outfits.
“Sure, you can just stand there and sing ‘Mr. Roboto’ in your normal clothes,” says Mr. Huffman, a 39-year-old Sterling, Va.-based delivery driver. “Wouldn’t it be better though, if you did it as Optimus Prime, and incorporated quotes from the ‘Tranformers’ cartoon?”
That’s not a hypothetical. Mr. Huffman did that once.
Karaoke competitions have existed for years, but the idea of a competition centered on teams competing to see who can perform covers of musical hits best over the course of a season is a newer phenomenon. Jesse B Rauch, the 33-year-old founder of United Karaoke, a network of leagues, started his first in Washington in 2012 after craving something more creative than his adult kickball league.
The top crooners from the D.C. area will face off in a citywide championship at a Chinatown bar on Dec. 7, with winners earning passes to an area music club.
District Karaoke has sister leagues in New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles, with 400 participants between the four—and has plans to grow.
The Washington leagues attract mostly young adults with disparate backgrounds. Mr. Neal is a 25-year-old Howard University student. His co-captain, 31-year-old Kingsley Jefferson, is a global analyst at the Transportation Security Administration.
And yet they are in tune with their passion for the absurd. Ebben Wiley Bell, who works at a D.C. nonprofit, once performed “Kiss” by Prince dressed as a frog. Mr. Neal joined his teammates in full cat makeup for a rendition of “Uprising” by Muse.
At the District competition in Arlington, a relative newcomer, Mary Wines, proved invaluable as her team—called Sharp Cheddar—scored the Tuesday title. A Starbucks-themed riff on Maroon 5’s “Sugar” and a version of Gwen Stefani’s “The Sweet Escape” about a prison break helped clinch the win.
Perhaps most memorably, Ms. Wines, a 25-year-old strategy consultant, wore a homemade Fantastic Four outfit for her solo rendition of Sia’s “Elastic Heart”—with a twist.
She tweaked the lyrics to tell the story of the loose-limbed Mr. Fantastic and renamed the song “Elastic Arms.” She attached pieces of dryer exhaust tubing from her roommate’s garage to her arms, with white gloves taped to the end. As the song crescendoed, Ms. Wines flapped her arms so they suddenly appeared to triple in length.
In New York, meanwhile, there is enough talent and demand to sustain a pair of leagues: Gotham City Karaoke, one of the District’s sister leagues, and NYC Karaoke. Several members of NYC Karaoke have serious musical backgrounds, including teams of alumni of college a cappella groups from Duke and Brown. NYC Karaoke, which just finished its 20th season since launching in 2009, keeps season-to-season statistics for teams as well as individual singers.
“We track sound, showmanship, opponents’ sound, opponents’ showmanship and margin on both,” says Cullen Shaw, NYC Karaoke’s founder.
One NYC Karaoke participant once did a Lady Gaga song in an outfit made of raw bacon in tribute to the meat outfit the pop diva once wore.
Andrew Song, owner of Karaoke Cave, NYC Karaoke’s East Village home base, says he is happy enough with the Wednesday crowds the league provides to have started discussing expanding to Tuesdays. He’ll often see the die-hards in the bar earlier in the week rehearsing, too. “It’s not some drunk person going up there and screaming,” he says.
Martavius Parrish, a 23-year-old working on a musical theater performance masters at New York University, was a guest performer for Atomic Buddha, the team of Duke alumni. His ambitious duet with Jordan Rodriguez, of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from the musical “Dreamgirls,” brought down the house.
“I was actually in a state of shock we finished that song without crashing and burning,” he said afterward.
Participants call karaoke leagues a way to scratch an itch to perform, meet people in a new city or make sure they keep in touch with friends.
Lyssa Treibitz is a 31-year-old member of the Karaokays, a team assembled mostly from the software company where she works. She found out about NYC Karaoke from a guy she met on the dating app Hinge. They’re not in touch, she says.
“Oh, no. But I’m planning on contacting him and telling him this has become a thing.”