Karaoke! It’s fun, it’s social, it’s a great way to show off your total mastery of the lyrics to “International Players’ Anthem.” But what if you’re the type of person who wants to sing, but doesn’t necessarily know where to start? It’s easier than you might think.
Options for karaoke in most urban areas are twofold: public gatherings and private rooms. Both will wind up costing you a not-insubstantial amount of money, whether for room rental, DJ tipping, or drinks.
Public gatherings: Many bars all over this fine land bring in karaoke DJs to host events one or more times week. The setup is generally pretty simple: You show up, peruse the book for a song, write the song title and artist along with your name on a slip, and wait. If you want to be assured of a slot, get there early; if the establishment is sparsely populated enough, you might even be able to see the DJ herself pick a song or two in order to remind the crowd that she’s providing the evenings entertainment. (It’ll also help you gauge her tastes, which matters more than you think. More on that in a bit.)
It’s not uncommon to tip the karaoke DJ along with your song request. A mere $1 a song is fine for the earlier hours, and if the night gets hectic, adding a buck or two isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Know that your tip doesn’t mean your song is guaranteed, though; karaoke nights at bars tend to have hard closing times because of nuisance laws. Be nice to the DJ—she’s probably pretty harried from having to deal with drunk people who want their turn in the spotlight—and treat her equipment with respect. I have actually seen DJs blacklist people who were jerks! They have that power and they aren’t afraid to use it.
Karaoke bars. If you want your karaoke to be out of view of the masses, whether because of stage fright or because of your distrust of others’ tastes, karaoke bars are the way to go, especially the ones that offer private rooms. The private-room karaoke near me —the stacked Do Re Mi in Allston, Mass., which is unfortunately closing in the coming months in order to make room for an ugly apartment complex—charges $30 an hour for a regular room, with $5/hour added for each person over the fifth (up to 12), and $80 for a party room, with $5/hour added for each person over the 10th (up to 30). This is pretty standard, although rates in places like New York, particularly the karaoke-parlor-heavy Koreatown, can go higher. Make sure you’re going with friends who won’t skip out on the bill, which can get especially high if there’s also a bar involved.
Karaoke bars with private rooms often offer singing opportunities in a public space near the entrance as a way to placate people who have been told to wait/welcome the lonely. You usually pay per song —a buck or three, depending on how luxe the area is, before tip— and the bartender doubles as DJ, passing out slips and picking the flow of songs.
There’s a bit of skill involved in picking karaoke songs. First: Do you like the song you’re about to sing? Good. (Ironic karaoke should only be deployed in private, if at all.) Second: Can you sing it? (“No” is actually not a dealbreaker here! If Alt-J’s frontman can lead a festival-headlining band, you can certainly pull off a song or two among friends.) Third: Do you know what you’re getting into? This is probably the most important question of all, and it involves a little bit of preparation, both at home and in sitú.
Read the room. If you’re among friends, it’s probably fine to bust out “Bungle in the Jungle” or the one Uriah Heep track buried in the back of the book. At a crowded bar? Maybe pick something a bit more crowd-pleasing, like, I don’t know, “Rock & Roll.”
Remember the words. Including the verses. So many songs out there with catchy choruses, so many songs out there with catchy choruses that have utterly unmemorable verses. Don’t let humming along for the first 45 seconds of a song happen to you! It sucks the air out of your performance and out of the room.
Figure out the song’s karaoke arrangement. I call this The “Personal Jesus” Rule. While that Depeche Mode hit has a nervy, pent-up sexuality to it, the karaoke arrangement of the track has reduced even the most steely-eyed Dave Gahan wannabe to eyerolling by its end. Why? Because of its incessant instruction to have the singer repeat the phrase, “Reach out, touch faith” approximately 4,085 times as the guitars and electronics clang around him (or her). It’s a terrible, drawn-out ending to a song that should be a banger. Thanks to streaming music, however, karaoke offerings from the likes of Ameritz and Sunfly are easily accessible online, so you can do your homework beforehand and figure out whether your song of choice has a 38-measure instrumental break or a wholly new verse that was only heard on a remix.
Watch for pitfalls. Some of your favorite songs to sing while you’re in the shower might be much more difficult in front of a larger audience. I’m thinking mostly of songs that are largely in monotone; they actually wind up being harder to sing than one might think, since doing so essentially involves sustaining the same note for long periods of time.
Don’t be afraid to gender-bend. It’s 2015! You can definitely be a dude and rip through “Work Bitch,” or be a woman who’s singing about Mercy not thinking she’s pretty a la Jani Lane. Sometimes vocal ranges can take you to new and exciting places.
Tug the nostalgic strings. I will always sing a song from the Headbanger’s Ball vault, because they are super fun to perform and they usually trigger memories in even people I haven’t met. “Possum Kingdom” by Toadies is also a big crowd-pleaser, all the way to its halting close.
Please do not sing these songs. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (Phil Rizzuto, R.I.P.); “Summer Nights” (ugh, are you still in high school?); anything by Pink Floyd (even if you’re among friends, and yes, that includes “Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2)“; “Rude” (because, rude); “All About That Bass”; any lyrically dense songs that you aren’t absolutely sure of (see above); most of the Doors’ catalog (I like “Peace Frog” okay, I don’t know why); that “Mambo No. 5” parody about Bill Clinton’s sex life (it’s called “Bimbo No. 5,” and there are way better ways to remember the ’90s). Also, seriously, the neverending “reach out touch faith” breakdown to “Personal Jesus” really sucks the air out of a place.
Keep a list. I have a Spotify playlist of songs I like to sing at karaoke for when I get stuck. No shame in knowing what you’re good at!
Now that you’ve determined what you’re singing, it’s time to suss out how to pull off your performance. This is the most fun part! Even those people who consider themselves to be wallflowers with voices like irritable cats can be karaoke stars. The trick is to have confidence — easier said than done, of course, but the Bravado style of karaoke is accessible to all.
I like to tell people that they should think of their karaoke performance model on two axes: Theatricality and Vocal Prowess. David Lee Roth, high-kicking, high-energy monster that he is, scores high on former, although his yelping doesn’t make him the best example of the latter. (Dude can wail, but he’s no Robert Plant.) Jarvis Cocker is high on theatricality even when he’s being all languorous, and while his voice hits me in the best spot, his sing-talking style is easier for people who aren’t necessarily headed for Carnegie Hall.
The main thing to remember is that a great karaoke performance doesn’t have to involve making your voice reach Susan Boyle levels of angelic. It’s a combination of knowing what you want to do and knowing how to maneuver around in that space, whether you’re an extrovert who just has to go all in on Sebastian Bach’s “Monkey Business” wail or a weary wallflower who wants to sincerely dedicate Alanis Morrisette’s “Thank U” to your nearest and dearest. Going all in doesn’t necessarily have to mean being loud enough to not need a microphone, or jumping octaves like Kelly Clarkson; it just means being present and aware of what you’re singing, and being excited that you’re at the center of attention for the all-too-short length of a pop song.
Oh, and don’t deep-throat the microphone, because that —like that awful MAGIC! song from last year— is rude.
Maura Johnston lives in Boston, where she teaches at Boston College and edits the culture periodical Maura Magazine. She also spins records at WZBC and writes for the Boston Globeand Rolling Stone. She’s on Twitter @maura.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
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