An Ode to Sing Sing: The Ultimate NYC Karaoke Dive
Former patrons reflect on the legacy of this East Village institution (in the Before Times).
I have lived in New York for eight years, but have only witnessed karaoke a handful of times. This is pretty much by design; I simply don’t enjoy karaoke. I didn’t enjoy singing “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears for a small roomful of college friends at a birthday party in 2016. I didn’t enjoy singing “Waterfalls” by TLC with my roommates for another roommate’s birthday two years ago. And look, I wish I did. I support those who do enjoy it, I want them to do whatever makes them happy and fulfilled, but personally, I have never understood the appeal of making friends and strangers listen to me sing along to a track in a crowded room. Am I being a Scrooge? Probably.
Now that singing in public is one of the most dangerous things you can do and we are all relegated to at-home fun, karaoke has taken on some retrospective appeal. It has become a naive historical pastime that flies in the face of social distancing. If tomorrow life magically went back to the way it was and someone invited me out for a night of vodka sodas and raucous singalongs, I would jump at the opportunity and probably sing “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia seven times in a row. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t in the cards, even if there are some New Yorkers who are willing to break state-mandated laws just for a few minutes in the spotlight. In lieu of breaking the law, we must look to the past for our karaoke nights out, and what better place to look than the East Village’s Sing Sing Karaoke, a staple of the Manhattan karaoke scene.
Sing Sing has two East Village locations, with its original digs on St. Marks and another on Avenue A. Both are classic East Village dives that typify a more carefree, downtown style of going out. In the before-times, patrons could either pick a private room in the back for $8 a person or try their hand taking center stage in the front, singing for the other patrons for $2 a song. The private rooms had microphones covered in Saran Wrap and a giant catalogue of songs, some of which patrons described as particularly “muzak-y” if you’re into that kind of thing. Sing Sing regular Gabby Jordan Brown told me, “I miss how small sweaty and intimate it is. I loved that it felt like anything went there. You could sing a little known country ballad or the most popular song on the charts and if you committed, everyone else was on board.”
“Before the pandemic, my friend and I had been going there once a week for years. It was kind of our home away from home, and we became really close with most of the staff, and that’s never happened to me at any other bar in New York.”
The original location on St. Mark’s opened in 2000 and has more of a classic karaoke bar vibe, while the Avenue A spot is a little punkier in aesthetic, reflecting its location in Alphabet City, near Tompkins Square Park. Both establishments take pride in their no-frills presentation. More than a few reviews use the word “shabby,” but for a karaoke den in an ever-gentrifying downtown neighborhood, that is a compliment and a badge of honor. That doesn’t mean it’s intimidating or uninviting, however. Sing Sing regular Lindsey Glass told me, “After moving from a college in upstate New York, I had to do a lot of adapting to get used to the city. I don’t have my car to blast music in, the only private spaces are apartments...My friends and I would go to Sing Sing probably once a week to unwind and hang out. It was such a great mix of private space and knowing you were out. I miss it.”
While there have been plenty of karaoke bar options to pop up in the East Village over the years, Sing Sing has remained a tried and true beacon of the scene. What it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in grit, cred, worn-and-torn leather booths, and large graffiti style murals. It’s considered one of the most established karaoke bars in New York, a title that necessarily comes with a few quirks and some sticky spots on the floor. Another weekly patron, Vesna Bozic told me that one of the reasons she loves Sing Sing is the people who work there. “Before the pandemic, my friend and I had been going there once a week for years. It was kind of our home away from home, and we became really close with most of the staff, and that’s never happened to me at any other bar in New York. We even attended one of the bartenders’ baby showers.”
“I miss how small sweaty and intimate it is. I loved that it felt like anything went there. You could sing a little known country ballad or the most popular song on the charts and if you committed, everyone else was on board.”
With the pandemic complicating a lot of small business plans, the future is uncertain for a lot of these recreational establishments in New York, including Sing Sing. For now, the music is on pause, but we can remember the good times, look forward to when the doors open again, and pick out some good songs with which to serenade our fellow patrons when we get there -- I’m thinking “Behind the Mask” by Fleetwood Mac or “Touch My Body” by Mariah Carey. I think by the time we’re doing our karaoke in person again, I’ll likely be so starved for attention that I’ll have transformed into a full-blown karaoke freak (no offense).
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