MOSCOW, Sept. 24, 2010 -- If you went to the kick-off of the eighth annual Karaoke World Championships expecting some of the off-key, cringe-worthy barroom belting of 1980s ballads karaoke is known for, you would have come away sorely disappointed.
Instead, the first night of the competition in Moscow on Thursday featured 31 talented singers from Kazakhstan to the Faroe Islands vying for two record deals, a shot at stardom and one million Russian dumplings courtesy of the event's sponsor.
"You have to be like the artist, but you have to put your two cents in," said 30 year-old Edward Pimentel of Albuquerque, N.M., trying to explain how the competition is like the karaoke most of us know. Except here, if you look at the lyrics on the stage monitor, you get points deducted.
"This is more like the Olympics of Karaoke," said Team USA's self-described mentor Brian Scott when asked how the competition differs from other amateur singing contests like American Idol. "It's a lot different, karaoke, than those types of reality shows. This is more like an Olympic event for all the countries of the world."
Indeed, setting the tone of the competition, the night started with the contestants lined up on stage singing Michael Jackson's "We Are the World."
"The goal for us is the unification of the entire planet under the banner of karaoke," organizer Alexander Shamaev told the crowd. "We hope it will become the most massive sport on the planet."
A few hundred spectators sat calmly at round tables in the low-lit ballroom, generally grouped with their compatriots and erupting into applause and flag-waving when their contestants took the stage.
Germany's Susann Chrapow stepped up to the microphone first, delivering a scratchy version of singing contest favorite "I Ain't Got Nothin'" by Alicia Keyes. Belarus' Kate Grichik bounced in front of the judges in baby blue dress singing an accented version of Abba's "Thank You for the Music."
The United States is represented by Pimentel and Tami Marie, 31, a petite blonde also from Albuquerque. Pimentel is on a break from his job at Verizon in tech support ("I'm a nerd at heart", he says). Marie is writing a book about her grandmother who was recently cured of spinal meningitis.
"I've got my bags packed," Pimentel said confidently just before he headed up to perform Usher's "There Goes My Baby."
"I was nervous for the United States [national competition], but now it's a lot easier," he said.
Marie, the women's national champion, delivered a powerful "Misery" by Pink and Steven Tyler. Team mentor Brian Scott (and singer in the 2009 World Championships) and Marie's mother swayed while waving a large American flag a short distance from the stage.
"I want to do it again!" exclaimed Marie after coming off stage. "You feel like you're famous, you feel like you're a star and it makes you feel so blessed."
"It was not like singing in a dive bar, it was like singing in a performance," Pimentel agreed after his performance.
There were regular reminders that the Karaoke World Championships have a long way to go before achieving the level of American Idol or Eurovision.
Technical difficulties, performers missing their cues and a host who couldn't have been less excited to be there. None of which appeared to dampen the mood.
"From last year to this year, huge difference," said Scott. "It just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. It's truly becoming something that's going to be worldwide, everybody's going to know about it."
The contestants have one more night to impress the judges before the finalists are chosen for Saturday night's final round.
One man and one woman will be awarded a record contract in Finland (the home of the Championships) and, of course, a million dumplings.