Pop Songs (and Popsicles) With a Bullet

An ice-cream truck rolls up to the south entrance of Plummer Park on Saturday, its hi-fi speakers blasting an ethereal, toy-piano version of Beck’s “Loser.” It’s 100 degrees, but out pops a woman in a geometric, fiberglass squirrel suit. She skips over to a picnic table and joins a group of Russian men playing cards. One of the men turns and asks gruffly, in heavily accented English, “Who is this squirrel?

It’s a good question, one written across the faces of the others. The answer: Despite the ready supply of Otter Pops, this is no ordinary ice-cream truck. It’s “Karaoke Ice,” a Brooklyn, NY-based art project dedicated to encouraging unbridled expression and interaction among the masses.

But despite Plummer Park’s popularity, there are few masses here to encourage. Aside from the Russians, a homeless guy beneath a tree, some basketball players and a few children and parents clustering in the precious shade, the park is empty.

“Maybe because it’s Labor Day weekend,” says co-creator Nancy Nowacek. “Or maybe it’s the heat. But quality is more important than quantity. If we make one person happy, if they have a great experience, then it’s a success.”

Oddly, Nowacek and her fellow artists, Katie Salen and Marina Zurkow, don’t really like karaoke. “I’ve always been embarrassed by it,” confesses Salen. But when the trio was commissioned to create a mobile interactive space, it occurred to them that ice-cream trucks always want a better soundtrack, and karaoke singers always want a bigger audience.

Nearly $50,000 later, with the input of more than two-dozen technicians, “Karaoke Ice” rolled off the blocks. Covered in pastels and digital design elements, the truck is equipped with state-of-the-art sound and light, a beaded curtain and a disco ball. The doors in the back open to create a stage, while the squirrel serves popsicles from a side window.

“It’s a barter system,” says Nowacek. “A pop for a song.”

The truck’s computer has three beat-tracks and 24 songs, all composed in the same monophonic, xylophonic style. The KI team also encourages a cappella performances — an offer taken up enthusiastically by five-year-old Dylan Ever of West Hollywood.

Though a karaoke novice, the tiny Ever fearlessly climbs the truck’s industrial-steel stage and, without hesitation or warning, begins to belt out her favorite song, Britney Spears’ “. . . Baby One More Time.”

“She knows every chorus and every verse,” says Nowacek. “I love it!”

With their spirits buoyed, the seven-member “Karaoke Ice” team closes their doors and heads back out into the city. This was just the second stop of a weekend-long Los Angeles tour. Next up: Watts Towers.

An hour later, “Karaoke Ice” pulls into another empty park. Some of the crew cruises an adjacent neighborhood to drum up interest, giving out free popsicles to kids and inviting them to the park to sing. But when the truck returns to the park, the KI team is in for a rude awakening: Enrique, the driver, shouts, “Nancy, we got hit!” He points to the triangular side window, just a foot from where he was sitting in the open-door cockpit.

“Oh my god! Was that a bullet?”

Indeed, there is a small circular pock in the window, and small shards of glass have sprayed through to the inside. Visibly shaken, Enrique clutches the steering wheel. “I’m okay,” he says. “I was busy making a turn and didn’t see anything. I just heard the crack.”

“Maybe it’s time to go,” says one member of the team. “The people have spoken,” says another. As they discuss moving to a more hospitable location, three cherubic kids emerge shyly from behind a fence.

Nowacek’s face brightens. “Do you want to sing?” she asks. The three nod.

Moments later, the kids take the stage beneath the disco ball, singing Madonna’s “Material Girl,” and Aretha’s “Respect.” A small crowd of parents gathers, cheering them on. “Karaoke Ice” has, in the end, had its day

As the sun sets, Nowacek and Zurkow once again perform “Loser.” Even though they’ve heard (and sung) this song countless times, their vigor is undiminished.

“It’s always different,” says Nowacek. “That’s why it’s great. When someone gets out there onstage, you never know what’s going to happen.”

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