Note: names have been changed.
My fantasy begins in a dark bar. I’m with friends and currently on my second beer—enough to feel pleasantly buzzed, but not enough to start oversharing about my childhood. The music is loud and I see a man across the room. He glances at me, and then looks away. I take a sip of my beer. Then the song ends and the man across the room looks back at me and calls my name.
It’s my turn for karaoke.
I cross the room and take the microphone while my friends cheer before debating whether or not we should all do shots when I’m done. The opening bars of my song play, something by a powerhouse like Whitney Houston or Adele or even Christina Aguilera if I’m feeling particularly 90s. The words appear on the screen and I begin to sing along. My voice rings out through the bar, strong and clear, and everyone stops for a moment, shocked, before whispering to each other about how good of a singer I am. I sing the song effortlessly and the crowd encourages me every step of the way, breaking into wild applause when I hit the high note at the climax that has felled many a drunk karaoke singer in the past. But not me. My song is perfect. I finish to wild applause and hand the microphone back to the karaoke host who looks appropriately impressed by my talent. He’s used to drunk faux-cowboys singing “Friends in Low Places” and angry ex-girlfriends scream singing “You Oughtta Know.” Rarely does he see a talent of this caliber and he finds himself hoping I’ll come back the following week, if only to give him a break from the tone deaf bachelorette parties singing “Lady Marmalade.”
When I sit down at my table, someone comes over to me and offers an introduction, telling me they are a representative of a record label and they would love to discuss my singing with me further. I tell them, no, thank you, I’m just having fun with friends, but they beg me to take their card anyway. I do and they leave my table as I sit back in my chair, still basking in the glory of my performance as the opening bars of a Dixie Chicks song play on stage for the next performer who is forced to follow my impressive act.
This, of course, has never actually happened to me. I sing just well enough to not be embarrassed in a Mommy & Me Music Class, but not well enough that I would let drunk people judge me in a bar. I did sing karaoke once just before I graduated college, but my experience was nothing like my fantasy. My roommate, a dual theater and vocal performance major, and I decided to sing “I Touch Myself” by The Divinyls. I figured that if I was terrible, she could just drown me out and I’d still get credit for going on stage. I was completely sober at the time, but my roommate was not. This became very clear as soon as we began to sing and she started to use me as a stripper pole while we sang. Luckily, the microphones were wireless so we weren’t tied together like anxious, over-excited dogs out for a walk. My roommate ended up drawing most, if not all, of the attention during our song, and, honestly, I was completely relieved. I regretted signing up to sing the moment we put our names down on the list, so her exuberant performance gave me the out my social anxiety desperately needed.
Years later, the bar I worked at decided to try to compensate for slow Tuesday nights by starting a karaoke night. As little effort as possible was put into this endeavor, and it showed. Our fancy jukebox came with a karaoke option, so we projected it on our TVs and found a spare microphone in with our aging sound equipment. None of the employees were particularly interested in hosting because none of us really enjoyed singing, so one of my coworkers, Ashley, was roped into it because she had the misfortune of being free on Tuesdays and an inability to say no to work requests. Ashley wasn’t a bad host, per se, but it was clear she didn’t want to be there and disliked being the center of attention. Frankly, had someone offered mid-karaoke to take over as host, she probably would’ve been out the door before the opening line of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was finished.
The bar’s karaoke night rarely had more than a dozen attendees, and even that number feels generous. Mostly, it was populated by regulars whom we’d bribed to attend. I was never there of my own free will, and instead only made an appearance when I was scheduled to work behind the bar. As a way to both entertain myself and keep myself busy during the very slow karaoke nights, I decided to create a shot I could put on special to help participants get very drunk very quickly. Thus, the Woo Girl was born. Our liquor purveyor had given us a bottle of gummy bear vodka as a sample and it tasted like sugar and bad decisions, making it the perfect choice for a karaoke shot. I mixed it with pineapple juice and grenadine and dropped a maraschino cherry into the glass. The shot tasted about as gross as it sounds, and the bulk of them were sold to my coworkers who bought them ironically and/or to humor me. The shot itself was sweet enough to give you a cavity on contact and, in retrospect, the cherry was perhaps a little more aggressive than I’d intended. The grenadine in the shot obscured the cherry, so if you didn’t know the cherry was there because you were too busy arguing with you friends over who was going to rap Lil’ Kim’s part in “Lady Marmalade,” you could very well choke on it. Thankfully, my co-workers all knew the cherry was there so I didn’t accidentally murder someone who could switch shifts with me in the coming weeks.
I wasn’t actively trying to hurt anyone, but I think my subconscious feelings clearly came out in the invention of this shot due to its name. A Woo Girl is exactly what it sounds like: a drunk girl that shouts, “Woooo!” at the top of her lungs in a bar. If you have ever been to a bar even once in your life, you’ve seen one of these creatures in their natural habitat. They are the obnoxious girls at the bar who tend to order “that one drink I had at that one place, you know what I mean” and often feel entitled to free drinks simply because they’re pretty. But for bartenders, the (usually) sober babysitters of the customers behaving like drunk toddlers, Woo Girls are little more than a loud annoyance who kick off our migraines in time for a bunch of frat boys to come in and demand shots of Jaeger. Woo Girls wouldn’t even be that bad if they at least tipped well, because most bartenders can put up with just about anything as long as there’s enough cash involved. I should know, because I bought most of my friendships by leaving large tips for bartenders. However, Woo Girls rarely tip well, if at all, because they’ve never had to. Men often buy drinks for Woo Girls in an effort to bed them and, as Woo Girls are unused to purchasing their own liquor, they are often blissfully ignorant that most bartenders are paid below minimum wage and desperately need their tips to buy their own alcohol to deal with the migraine the Woo Girls gave them during their shift.
There is a certain level of discomfort at seeing Woo Girls in their natural habitat (bars and bachelorette parties), largely due to the fact that I suspect I used to be one. I never took off my shoes in the middle of the bar and drunk dialed my ex while crying in the bathroom, but I’ve definitely hung out with them, cringing as I tried to apologize to the bartender with large tips so they would know I wasn’t “like them.” But I was. Most of us were at one time or another. I’m in my 30s and I know people my age who still brag on social media about how many drinks they had in a single evening.
“Thanks folks for the bday wishes! Made it to 20 drinks before I browned out!”
This particular person went on to explain in the comments that “browning out” is like a less severe version of blacking out, but I’m choosing instead to believe they shit their pants. There is a dark side to being a Woo Girl and it pretty much always involves ill-timed bodily fluids. Also, bragging about how many drinks you had in a single night wasn’t that cool in our 20s, and it’s just kind of pathetic in our 30s–no one is impressed.
If you can get past the cackle laughter that constitutes their war cry, there is something kind of beautiful about Woo Girls. They possess a kind of idealistic invincibility where they move through the bar as if nothing can touch them, like drunken manic pixie dream girls come to life. For the most part, their life paths have not yet been determined; they can technically go anywhere or do anything. As we get older, we commit to certain choices and as we do, it closes off other avenues we could have taken. This is not always a bad thing, but there is still a kind of nostalgia for the way things could have gone, the romanticized ideas of the way our lives could have turned out. Of course, these ideas get to stay beautiful and perfect because we don’t live them; any choice will have pros and cons. If you’d taken the job overseas it might have been amazing and maybe you’d actually be fluent in Italian instead of just elementary school proficient, but maybe you would’ve been Amanda Knox. That guy you almost dated could have been the love of your life, or he could’ve had a collection of heads in his basement. You never know and it’s easier to idealize what never happened because reality isn’t there to ruin your good time. That’s why some people who are older and wiser claim “youth is wasted on the young,”—they’re sure that now that they know what they know, they’d do it “right.” Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t, but that’s not an option we’re given. So instead we look at the Woo Girls and roll our eyes at their exuberant optimism, certain that they’re going to fuck up their opportunities.
If I had my 20s to do all over again, I don’t know if my decisions would be that drastically different from the ones I made. Faulty serotonin receptors aside, I’m fairly happy most of the time. Looking back, there are a few things I wish I’d figured out sooner, like how to use “no” as a complete sentence or how to style my hair without it looking like I live in gingerbread house in the woods, luring wayward children into my oven. But I know how to do those things now, which is what matters (admittedly, some days the hair thing is still a little iffy). I could’ve made other choices, but I didn’t. The fleeting, wistful nostalgia I feel when I see Woo Girls is more about that romanticized notion of endless possibilities, but it’s gone when I remember how anxious I felt all the time when I was their age. I was so panicked about making the “correct” choices that I often held myself back from trying more, even as little as volunteering to sing a song in front of a room of drunken strangers. Then again, I like where I ended up, so I’m okay with letting that fantasy go.
Despite my feeble, half-assed efforts with drink specials, karaoke nights only lasted for a little while at the bar before finally being allowed to die the death they deserved. More often than not, employees outweighed the customers and no one was willing to sing aside from one of the bar backs, who actually had a really nice voice. As the bar back sang one night, I leaned on the cooler behind the bar and watched him, feeling both impressed and a little jealous. He was living out my fantasy in front of me while I stayed behind the bar, mentally calculating how much gummy bear vodka was left in the bottle. Granted, “Walking in Memphis” does not create the same kind of gravitas as “I Will Always Love You,” but he was up on stage, singing karaoke while the rest of us watched appreciatively, having had no idea he could sing well. When he was done, Ashley tried to goad me onto the stage to sing, but I declined. When Ashley offered to let me sing behind the bar, I still refused, insisting I needed to focus on the lone customer, so Ashley let me off the hook. Ashley then sat down at the bar, completely out of karaoke participants, and ordered something that did not involve gummy bear vodka. As I mixed her drink and set it on the black cocktail napkin in front of her, I hummed a few bars of Whitney Houston to myself, drowned out by the much louder music coming from the jukebox. My karaoke fantasy is fun, but it pales in comparison to my larger reality that extends past the doors of the bar, the life I chose that I continue to choose again and again and again like a favorite song.