Montreal is a great city. It is full of leftist, sex-positive, body-positive queerdos putting on all manners of wild events, from cabarets to kink parties to circus acts! Among these events is Bareoke aka strip karaoke at Café Cleopatra in the quartier des spectacles of Montreal.
I recently went to this event for the first time and even gave it a try myself! And let me tell you; it opened my eyes in a way I hadn’t expected.
What Is Strip Karaoke?
What is strip karaoke, you ask? It’s not like Strip Poker, Strip Go Fish or Strip Chess (or other competitive games where you take off items of clothing when you lose).
It’s just like regular karaoke — you have a massive book with the repertoire of songs on the tables along with little slips of paper and pens to write your name and song selection, and you get called up to perform one by one — but you add the daring performative element of removing your clothes while you’re doing it.
You might think that such a vulnerable activity would be rife with public breakdowns and questionable consent boundaries. But no, strip karaoke here has a joyously liberating feel.
What’s The Vibe?
This is a recurring event like no other. Think of all the vulnerability and insecurity (or not!) of karaoke. Then, think of all the vulnerability and insecurity (or not!) around showing your naked body to a room full of strangers (or not!). Then, combine them at the same time.
To say that the room was buzzing with excitement is an understatement. That room at the top of the stairs, with its glowing fiber optic ceiling fan lights and its labyrinthian array of cozy, two or three-person tables with glowing candle lights in an otherwise dark space, that room — seemed about as solid as soft pasta yet as relaxed as a captive mouse.
The line between performer and audience was imperceptible. Going into the night, I couldn’t tell who was going to go up. Who was considering it? Who came just to watch? Looking through the crowd, across all the faces and bodies and clothes, I wondered who would sing what and how naked would they get?
How Naked Do You Get?
As naked as you want! I saw people who barely removed anything at all — merely a top-layer button-down shirt. I also saw plenty of people going ALL THE WAY! I’m talking full nudity, junk, and bits waving around, completely unrestrained from any sense of body-in-public boundaries. Most people went down to their undies, some went topless. There was a full range of levels of commitment.
The full nudity was often my favorite because there’s something so infectiously liberating about displaying your entire body and just GOING FOR IT. There are so few situations in North America where we get to stare at naked bodies without a shred of shame, and very few opportunities to legally get naked in public, especially not in a sexual context.
Oddly enough, shoes often stayed on, though I suppose they are tricky at the best of times let alone while juggling a microphone and reading words on a screen, wildly keyed-up. But those who managed to remove them in a sexy way won my approval instantly.
Freedom of Sexual Expression
From Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up, to all the versions of Sweet Dreams to nearly all of David Bowie’s discography, the music was fun and sexually charged with many flavors. One minute, someone would shyly undress to a shaky love song, the next someone would be grinding into the floor to some Marilyn Manson before pouring hot candle wax on their chest. It was wild!
No matter how they started though, every performer looked happier, more excited, and more confident by the end. You could see the transformation happening over the course of the song. They would remove one item, to great applause, and then more and more would come off and the crowd went wild. Each person became more and more comfortable strutting their stuff and it felt like group therapy.
When I think of how narrowly represented sexuality tends to be in regular media, and compare it to Bareoke, I can’t help but marvel at how beautiful variety can be. Each person was radically different from each other and expressed their sexuality in completely unique forms. They were all free to be sexy any way they choose.
How much more sexually liberated can one person get?
One element that is CRUCIALLY important to all of this is that there is no photography or recording of any kind permitted during the show unless the performer has explicitly said who is allowed to take photos or videos into the microphone. If you don’t want any evidence of your involvement on that stage after the fact, you can simply not worry about it. The default is privacy.
In a smartphone, social media world, it’s hard to believe that such a space could exist. A place where you can be sure that you’re not being captured without your explicit consent. A world where you might be doing one of the most daring acts of your life, and no one will record it unless you want them to. How refreshing!
Instead of worrying about your angles, you can be free to move around and use your body in whatever way feels good. You don’t know what you look like, but you do know how you feel. Because of that, the performances end up being more genuine rather than strictly performative.
Of course, there are also professionals who take the stage with a rehearsed and refined routine, but that’s not all of them.
In the media, we see tall, skinny blondes with perfect, sexy underwear, daintily undressing for the male gaze, and we see men’s nudity as the punchline to a joke. It is so rare to see butch lesbians, or trans women who never transitioned medically, or disabled people, or just men getting in touch with their own sexiness. Not only seeing it but seeing it live and in your face. It was a powerful experience.
When I went to Bareoke, I was expecting it to be a lot of women stripping for their boyfriends, or bachelorette parties getting raunchy together and maybe a few exhibitionist men. I expected a lot of heteronormativity, a lot of abled bodies, and a lot of “traditional” gender norms. To my great delight, it was not that at all! Sure, there were a few of those, but it certainly wasn’t the majority! There seemed to be a strong community of mostly queer folx enjoying their sensuality in public together.
I think one of the worst fears about this is having people disapprove of your body, your voice or just you in general. We all fear rejection at least a little, at some point. But the crowd was so supportive and though they thoroughly enjoyed themselves and cheered loudly, no one called out any names or made hurtful comments.
Everyone seemed to be just as enthusiastic with the bodies that defied established beauty standards as with those that conformed to them. In fact, since those who defied those norms probably had more experience with building themselves up in the face of a cruel culture, they were often the better performers due to their enthusiasm of proudly declaring through art, ‘THIS IS ME AND I AM SEXY!’
And that won the applause every time!
How Naked Did I Get?
I definitely considered going all the way, and I think I’m going to have to go back and get fully nude one of these days. But I didn’t bare it all on my debut performance.
I wore something I could really play with and have fun removing without having to commit to being too naked. I wore shoes that were easy to slip off, a very sparkly shirt for performative effect and a loose tank top with a plunging back line. By the end of the song, I was down to just my little undies and completely topless. No pasties. The nips were out! I did it! I finally freed the nipple!
This was my first time doing anything like this. I was always the kid who changed in the bathroom stall, and I even put my towel on before I even pulled open the shower curtain in my locked bathroom at home. I was in full support of liberation and nudity and wild sexuality, but I hadn’t yet pushed myself too far down that road. I was really amazed at how terrifying and electrifying it was to rip off my shirt for a crowd of cheering people!
You never get that kind of reaction out of one person behind closed doors.
Bare-Naked and Singing
I made it on stage and survived being mostly nude and singing in public. But rather than feeling like I had survived a harrowing experience I’d never want to repeat, I felt inspired to come back and do it again. I still want to know what it feels like to confidently and proudly dance, fully naked in front of a crowd of people and sing my heart out to uproarious applause.
I can’t imagine anything else more powerful than that.