A few years ago, some friends of mine, weekend musicians, started jamming together and formed a cover band called the Porch Lights. To be honest, their big world tour is a bit slow in developing. Conquering the globe one backyard at a time, they haven’t quite made it outside of our neighborhood, but in every other respect they really do rock.
And I confess that I enjoy few things more than when their lead singer Jess—a soccer mom with two kids who lives around the corner—calls me on stage to help with the vocals. I can hardly describe the reality-bending change that comes upon me at these moments. You would think I was being pulled from the shower and thrust onto the stage of a late-night talk show, so Americans in their living rooms can finally learn what they have been missing.
I greedily assault the microphone with my overemphatic voice. Singing as much with my eyes and my body, I am full of intensity but pretend to hesitate just a little, only to be urged onward by conviction and the primal need to let it all out. Whether it’s “Dead Flowers” by the Rolling Stones or “Superman” by R.E.M., the story takes over and these songs of decadence and obsession become fatal truths that must be told. By me. Right now. Because I really am superman.
Meanwhile, the nice people watching me, red Solo cups in hand, are visibly unsettled. Suburban dads and PTA moms laugh nervously, with their kids dancing beside them, a certain quizzical expression on their faces that says, “Whoa, didn’t see this coming.” Usually, I am one of the quieter guys, a one-on-one conversationalist more than any kind of big raconteur. But here I am, without warning, a full-blown exhibitionist. On the way home, I get the feeling that my daughter is waiting for an apology.
As a singer I have almost no training, though one time, at a summer theater camp, I did take lessons. In a recurring exercise, the teacher assigned other students to one of your body parts. One kid would take your right arm and slowly move it to and fro, another would handle the other arm, and another would gently swivel your head from side to side. Then you would begin singing whatever warmed-over show tune you had been working on. The goal was to distract you from your own body and thus release the breath and power locked in your diaphragm and vocal chords by self-consciousness and nerves. With three or four of my classmates playing puppeteer with my appendages, I never felt more silly, but my voice did sound pretty good.
Sometimes I think of going for lessons now, at this point in my life, to work on my technique. So when Jess calls me on stage I don’t sound so much like a drunken wedding guest who has wrestled the microphone away from the real singer. So I don’t sound so much like those karaoke wannabes with their bad Madonna imitations. Yes, I judge the karaoke people harshly, despite my own creeping awareness that we are brothers and sisters in wannabeism, genuine fakes all of us—or something worse.
A few nights ago my wife, Cynthia, told me that the singer I most remind her of is William Shatner. I was, of course, devastated. Is it conceivable that after all we’ve been through, my wife doesn’t actually love me?
Shatner is notorious for a series of spoken-word recordings he made, starting in the late ’60s, in which he applied the hammy overacting he made famous on Star Trek to schmaltzy pop songs such as Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” These covers are hilarious, unintentional parodies. A video of Shatner performing “Rocket Man” in 1978 at the Science Fiction Film Awards is utterly cringe-inducing and therefore very popular online. Yet Shatner has, more recently, worked with various well-known artists to record some very good music. In 2004, with Ben Folds and Joe Jackson, he made a cover of “Common People,” a song by the English band Pulp. It is, by far, my favorite version of that song.
If Cynthia is right and I do sound like Captain Kirk, then my singing is an unintentional parody of an unintentional parody. So I probably need to find another singer to unintentionally emulate. Or I might even develop, though hard work and dedication, a style I could ultimately call my own. But this goes back to the reason I have not signed up for singing lessons: I cannot imagine finding more pleasure in singing than I already do. And if I did I would be so distracted by my singing career that I might never work an honest day again.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard