“For this I will lament and wail; I will go stripped and naked; I will make lamentation like the jackals, and cry out like the ostriches.”
…That verse from Micah (chapter one, verse eight) probably marks one of the earliest references to karaoke in the Old Testament (that’s the first half of the Bible, to all you pagans out there). The simple fact of the matter is that at some point in your life, you are going to have to sing (or at least co-sing) a song in some sort of karaoke situation. Oh sure, I’ve heard all the excuses before “I’d never let myself sink that low” “I’m too careful to end up like that” “I’m a good person”, etc. but the fact of the matter is you can either prepare mentally and spiritually for this kind of thing, or you can just live in denial and be caught totally off guard when it happens to you (and trust me, it will). Bachelorette parties, housewarmings, cookouts, bar mitzvahs…technology has progressed in such a way that karaoke can strike anywhere, at any time, and even if you take every precaution available, karaoke will find you. And when it does, karaoke will show no mercy. Luckily, I’m here for you, and if you follow a few simple guidelines, you can survive karaoke as unscathed as possible…and heck, you might even come out of it with a good story to tell.
Rule 1: Know your level of vocal ability.
I always think this one is a no-brainer, but then every year I see a new set of American Idol promos (I haven’t watched an actual episode of American Idol since the Clay Aiken/Ruben Studdard season, I was too hurt after watching Clay unjustly lose to ever go back…plus those types of shows are pretty played out) where an astoundingly high number of people can’t sing. It’s one thing to be blissfully unaware that you’re singing is off-pitch (shout out to whoever was standing behind me in church this week*, but you do you, homeslice), but there’s a special level of pain I feel for people that are terrible singers and have NO IDEA! Like whoever is the Paula these days will be like “sorry sweetie, you’re no good” and the contestant will be all like “Psh YOU DON’T KNOW MY WORLD SON, I’ma take my voice and go out and make a million dollars without your show! I voted green party!” and then we never hear or see them again, with the sort-of exception of William Hung, who is on national TV about as often as I am (AKA not very). The moral of the story is: it may be painful, but do whatever you have to in order to figure out how good of a singer you are BEFORE you find yourself in front of a group of people at a karaoke bar or a panel of Randy Jackson types.
Rule 2: Pick a song people know.
People find themselves paying attention to karaoke (versus just using it for background noise) for one of four reasons: A) their friend is singing, B) they know the song, C) the person singing is incredibly bad, D) the person singing is incredibly good. You don’t have much control over A, you don’t want to be reason C, and you don’t have the practice time to make D an option. That makes your best way to get noticed (for the right reasons) choice B. Now if you’re the next Adele or Josh Groban, you can sing the bar’s drink menu and people will love it, but you haven’t been broken up with enough times to pull off Adele, so your best defense against the scorn of friends and random bargoers alike is to pick a song that they know (and ideally one that they can sing along to, to help drown yourself out). Think radio hits from the 90s, or anything uptempo from your high school’s graduation video.
Rule 3: Short
and IS sweet.
You know what gets a great reaction at a karaoke bar the second it comes on? Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Baby Got Back. Right when you hit “I like BIG BUTTS and I cannot lie” everyone goes nuts. By the time you’re finished with “you other brothers can’t deny” the entire bar will be singing along with you (except for the black patrons, who are probably a bit annoyed that you said “other brothers”). You know what gets a terrible reaction at a karaoke bar? The four minutes and eighteen seconds of Baby Got Back that follows the opening line. This is a classic karaoke mistake, and it’s not one you want to make. In their heads, people think about what a great hook a certain song has, but nine times out of ten, neglect to factor in the ENTIRE REST OF THE SONG. What happens next is you’re struggling to tread water until you hit “my anaconda don’t want none…” and even when you do you still have another painful 1:10 left to slowly suffer in front of everyone there. And it’s not just rap songs, either. Don McClean’s American Pie is just everyone prematurely trying to sing the high-note version of the melody (“…ohhh but we NEVER got the chance…”) without realizing that there are 29 verses in that eight-and-a-half minute song before you get to it. When you’re onstage, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s six minutes of pure, excruciating torture for everyone present just so you can sing the high note painfully flat (“for MEEEEEEEE”). Six minutes is an eternity in karaoke time, and it’s more time than you have. Short songs are great because they’re usually more uptempo, which means a good energy for the room, or if it’s a song you’re no good at, you’re done that much sooner. You want something in the 2:45-3:15 range. Anything longer than four minutes and you run the risk of being the friend no one wants to make eye contact with for the rest of the night. Or maybe ever again.
Rule 4: Mediocrity is your best friend.
Another reason you don’t want to sing Bohemian Rhapsody (or any song like it): Freddie Mercury. Freddie = one of the best singers of the 70s rock era and/or ever. You = once got asked to not participate in a round of “Happy Birthday” at your friend’s surprise party. At its core, karaoke is an excuse to drink heavily under the flimsy façade of mild entertainment. You’re not at an audition to get Usher to blindly choose you for his team on The Voice, so don’t treat it as such. You know all the great singer/songwriters of history? The Stevie Wonders, Paul McCartneys, Robert Plants, Whitney Houstons, etc.? You want nothing to do with their catalogue on a karaoke stage. They are your kryptonite (or whatever the kryptonite equivalent is for people who never had super powers in the first place), and just like Superman, if you expose yourself to them you will end up huddled in a ball on the floor and glowing green. The greats are great for a reason, and while “shoot for the stars” is good advice in life; in karaoke, you want “shoot for the celestial equivalent of Matchbox Twenty” to be your motto. What happens when you sing a mediocre song mediocrely? No one can tell the difference. This is your ideal outcome. Heck if you’re good, you might even sing it better than the original artist and make a mediocre song a decent song, and people will be fooled into thinking you’re a good singer. What happens when you sing a legendarily great song mediocrely? Everyone can tell how bad you are (even if you’re not that bad, you’ll still be far worse than the original artist) , and everyone will hate you for ruining their favorite Beatles song (leave Hey Jude** alone, I beg you).
Rule 5: Stay sober(ish).
Hey, I get it, you’re nervous, and drinking ALL the whiskey sounds like a great way to anti-nervous yourself. BUZZER SOUND EFFECT. Nope, doesn’t work. What actually happens is you take about three shots too many, and the wait until your name is called by the karaoke DJ means all that alcohol has had time to take full effect, and now instead of coming across as nonchalant and bubbly onstage, you’re the sloppy chick who looks like she’s up there because she’s pledging a sorority and her big forced her to sign up. Add to that your increasingly slurred speech, random fits of giggling, and the potential to literally puke everywhere without a moment’s notice, and you’re setting yourself up for karaoke disaster. Victory shots are for AFTER the battle is won, and while there’s nothing wrong with a couple drinks beforehand, save the hard stuff for when you’ve finished singing and you can escape to the bathroom or an outdoor shrubbery to vomit like a normal person. The small but important difference between a YouTube video of you singing that only your friends will want to see versus one that will go viral to the entire internet-connected world is whether or not you barf in the middle of a Bon Jovi song (“Whooaaaa, we’re halfway there, whoooaaaaa livin’ on a [BLAAAAARTHHHH]”, so don’t give Bob Saget (or whoever runs America’s Funniest Home Videos these days) the satisfaction.
Okay, you’ve followed these rules to the letter…so what does that leave you? Well there’s actually a ton of songs that fit the above criteria, and you should experiment to find three or four favorites to have in your wheelhouse (car + freeway = world’s best karaoke practice venue), that way your whole plan isn’t blown if someone who’s already gone sings “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” before you can. Think something along the lines of Third Eye Blind (Semi-Charmed life is a bit on the long side, but there’s so many “do do dos” that nobody will notice), Smash Mouth (Rockstar or I’m a Believer), Cheap Trick (I Want You to Want Me has a nice energy, is about three minutes long, and anybody can sing it), LFO (Summer Girls is only half-sung anyway, so there’s nothing to mess up, it’s a bit on the slow side though), Pat Benetar (Hit Me with Your Best Shot — under three minutes and an easy melody), Spice Girls (Wannabe…duh), and most one-hit wonders are karaoke gems. If you want something more current, look to the pop charts: Call Me Maybe, Party in the USA, Katy Perry’s Firework and their ilk. Disney songs can be a homerun (A Whole New World is a duet that everybody knows, and at just 2:40 it gets you in and out of the spotlight before the nostalgia wears off for everyone, same for The Lion King’s I Just Can’t Wait to Be King or The Little Mermaid’s Under the Sea) and most popular movie/TV show songs are good options because people know them and they’re short by nature.
Don’t sing any Dave Matthew Band. Dave Matthews Band sucks.
Lastly, three’s a crowd for a reason, and anything more than a duet at karaoke is a cop-out. Karaoke is about having fun — granted, the sort of fun that requires you potentially publicly humiliating yourself in front of friends and strangers alike, but still — and building character/confidence. It’s a bit like when you’re learning to hit a baseball with your dad as a kid, when you’re still terrified of getting hit with the ball, and your dad says “don’t worry, I’m not going to hit you” and then in his infinite fatherly wisdom, plunks one into your shoulder anyway (or maybe your dad was just a really bad shot). For a second you freak out…but then you realize, it really wasn’t that bad. The worst possible outcome in that situation has happened, and sure it stings for a little bit, but in the grand scheme of things it won’t negatively effect you. And on the upside, now you know that you don’t have anything to fear from that sort of thing. Karaoke is the same way, but singing in groups of three or more is the equivalent of showing up to batting practice with a bunch of pillows tied to you. Sometimes you just need to cowboy up for your own long term betterment.
Which leaves us with one, inevitable final question: what song(s) does Dustin sing at karaoke?? Well if you want the answer to that…you’ll just have to invite me out sometime and see for yourself (spoiler alert: it’s a 90s-heavy rotation. Shocker). You’re buying the first round of Irish Carbombs afterward, though.
What are some of your karaoke staples? Let me know about some karaoke successes or failures in the comments section (you can even do it anonymously if it’s that bad/good of a story).
*NOTE: I used this as an example of someone who clearly didn’t know their singing was bad just because it was the most recent example that came to mind, but as an important theological clarification: IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW BAD YOUR SINGING IS AT CHURCH. Church isn’t for impressing judgmental douchebags like me, it’s for worshipping God in whatever capacity you want. Sing out, sing loud, sing along, make up your own words or melodies, clap offbeat, raise the roof…when you’re worshipping EVERYTHING GOES, musically. I can’t stress this enough. Church is a judgment-free zone, and God doesn’t care about your flaws, he just cares that you’re willing to be willing. Pour out yourself so God can pour into you. Also it should be noted that I didn’t care that the dude behind me was singing poorly, it was just an observation I made. Because I am a douchebag.
**NOTE: Hey Jude is also a SEVEN MINUTE SONG (see Rule 3). That’s an awfully long time to sing just so you can get to the “nana na nahhhs” at the end like everybody wants.