It's a Wednesday night at Policy, a hip restaurant and lounge on 14th Street NW. Billy Idol's hit "White Wedding" is playing over the speakers and Emily Diamond-Falk is putting the finishing touches on her costume for tonight's karaoke league competition. That's right, a karaoke league. In this bar tonight, karaoke is a team sport.
"I'm wearing what I realized is a very tight French maid outfit," Diamond-Falk says.
Diamond-Falk is a member of REO Lush Wagon, formerly known as New Kids on the Lush Wagon. These folks make up a dedicated karaoke team. They're part of District Karaoke, a competitive team-based karaoke league. And they are no joke.
"I think it's very important to note that New Kids on the Lush Wagon won city — would be state-wide if we had statehood — competition last season," Diamond-Falk says.
Yes, she's talking about a citywide tournament. For karaoke. Last season, Diamond-Falk and her team sang their way to karaoke glory, beating out 22 other teams to take the title.
This season, REO Lush Wagon is looking for a repeat.
"You put a lot of effort into knitting or scrapbooking. We put a lot of effort into our hobby," she says.
It's something people would go and do for just fun, but they've turned it into a team sport.
"We were the ones that didn't have letter jackets," Diamond-Falk quips.
D.C., the city of competition and teamwork
Being a member of a karaoke team may seem a little odd especially if you've ever played a more legitimate sport like lacrosse or basketball. But competitive karaoke isn't all that strange when you consider that D.C. is full of off-the-wall leagues. The city boasts wiffleball, skeeball and shuffleboard teams. Want to compete in something called inner tube water polo? There's a league for that. How about a competitive game show league? D.C. has that, too.
There's something about this city that makes people turn everything into a competition. Maybe it's because there's so much drive and ambition here that it naturally extends to our recreational pursuits.
In the case of these karaoke team members, it's not enough just to go to their local bar on karaoke night, belt out some Tina Turner or Guns 'n Roses and call it a day. This is about victory. And costumes.
"What they say is true, at the top there's only one direction to go, down, says Sylvana Naguib, a Lush Wagon newbie. "I think we've decided if we're going to down, we're going to go down in flames."
Sing it, or 'schwing' it
At tonight's competition, REO Lush Wagon has picked Diamond-Falk to represent them in one of the two solo karaoke rounds. There's also a team round where everyone gets to perform. Diamond-Falk is REO's ringer. By day, she works in environmental advocacy. By night, she's a belter. Though in competitive karaoke, it takes more than a good voice to bring home a win.
The teams are judged on two criteria: sing it, and schwing it.
"Sing it is that musicality, how did you sound," says Jesse B. Rauch, commissioner of District Karaoke. "And schwing it is kind of that performance. If people have a good time, they may give you a high schwing it score."
Diamond-Falk is definitely going for the schwing tonight.
She's decided to go with a Downton Abbey theme. It's not the obvious choice to go with her song selection, which is "Alone" by Heart. But it works.
She's dressed as a maid with a microphone in one hand and a feather duster made from a butter knife and some paper napkins in the other. And she's serenading a giant, hand-painted cutout of Mr. Bates, the show's war-wounded valet. The crowd loves it. Her schwing factor is off the charts.
Rauch, the commissioner, and also the founder of District Karaoke, insists that it's not just about competition. It's also about fostering a sense of togetherness.
"We're really focused on building a community. As much as individuals can come and do this, it probably wouldn't bring people together in the same way," he says.
But don't think all that community-building talk makes District Karaoke any less serious than other social sports like kickball or dodgeball.
"I should tell you our unofficial motto," Rauch says. "Anyone can kick a ball, but only ballers can belt a ballad."
Photos: District Karaoke