Friday, November 29, 2013


I adore karaoke. It's drinks and music and fantastic people watching, all with a shot at the approval of friends and strangers. It is a phenomena most rare; an example of an ancient human impulse proving compatible with small scale capitalism as practiced for the last couple of decades. 98% of human civilization is sharing food and drink and stories and songs; always has been. And today, when it comes to efficient entertainment, it is difficult to imagine a more clean-burning amusement than karaoke. From the venue's point of view, the crowd is the show and the show is the crowd. No troublesome ticket sales or management of talent – the drunks arrive, amuse themselves and that is all.

Karaoke night is a more robust evolution of a singalong or an open mic night. All a performer must provide are semi-competent vocals and a reasonably vertical body posture for the better part of three to five minutes. Troublesome matters such as instrumentation, pitch and remembering the lyrics are taken out of the singer's hands. Anyone willing to sing up and wait may have a crowd and a backing track for a little while. At any given moment, anyone could delight everyone. It's a brilliant form of community sourced amusement. Every five block radius ought to have a regular karaoke night.

All of that said, many find even the low-stakes version of singing for a crowd that karaoke provides to be intimidating and bewildering. Worse yet, there are singers at many karaoke nights who don't understand what sort of show they're a part of and make performance choices that sour the vibe for everyone else. If you, gentle reader, have ever found yourself singing to an empty room that contained a flooded dance floor but moments before, please attend to the following guide. Successful live performance is an exercise in tracking multiple, constantly evolving variables all at once, all while a bunch of distracted, skeptical strangers observe and pass judgment. That's a lot of pressure for someone who isn't a performer by trade or inclination, for someone who just wants to sing some silly song. Karaoke becomes stressful failure when it ought to be a gas.

Well, stress no longer: help has arrived. I'm the best there is at what I do and what I do is read crowds. The following provisos,won through years of keen observation and bitter experience, will have you turning empty dance floors into all-out loveshacks in no time. Today, you stop clearing rooms and become a karaoke champion!


We'll begin with the core principles, which prove true in karaoke rooms from coast to coast and are simple enough to remember when you're hammered out of your mind. As in all things, winning at karaoke depends hugely on how you prepare for battle. Song selection is the karaoketeer's most crucial decision. Most song binders are thick with selections to lead the unwary astray. Cut through the distraction and win the crowd with the TRIANGLE PRINCIPLE.

In brief, the ideal karaoke song will fill out the full triangle with three key qualities: (1) it will be fun to dance to, (2) it will be fun to sing along with and (3) it will be stupid. To understand why this works, look up from the binders and get a load of your crowd. They're drunk. They're distracted. There's a show going on but none of them are specifically there to see it. You're at this weird mutant show where your crowdfolk are also your showfolk so the house is also the backstage. Your song is way down the list of things they give a shit about; they aren't there to see you just like you aren't here to see them. Look at them careening around, sitting with their backs to the stage, standing and talking and putting on their jackets to go out for a smoke. They aren't at a show; they're in a bar. They've come to sing, to see their friends sing and to get loaded. Also possibly to get laid, to forget about their jobs or lack thereof, to prepare for any number of realtalks and reckless decisions. They hope to enjoy your song, of course, but it's nothing that they're worried about. It's not like they bought a ticket and besides, they've got their song coming up to think about.

Most often, someone who bombs at karaoke was trying to blow minds when he should have started with trying not to annoy. He failed to apply the Triangle when he picked out his song and now everyone has to hear his Eddie Vedder impression for five endless minutes. Had he borne the Triangle in mind while filling out his slip, he would have picked a song that set him up for victory because it would have been a song more likely to facilitate the night that most of the room was trying to have. The crowd is there to sing, pick something they can sing with you. The crowd wants to have fun, give them something they can dance around to. And for god's sake, the world outside of this bar is grim and dour enough – no one wants to get deep with you! Give them something that's at least a little bit stupid.

Dumb songs that everyone knows are the quickest way to win the crowd. Summer jams are good. Power ballads are good. Disney songs tend to super crush. If you want to get people paying attention and on their feet, you gotta shut down the conversations keeping them at the table and it's hard to beat half the table bursting into song as a means of redirection. Also, you've got to reckon that a percentage of the room is at all times looking for any excuse to dance with another percentage of the room. Why not make that easy on them?

At this point, the contrarian might ask “What if my read of the room reveals a crowd that wants to hear a sad and serious song? What if they look like they don't want to dance, don't want to flirt, don't want to laugh and slosh around and sing together or any of that kind of carry-on. They want downbeat, contemplative music. They want to sit quietly and drink brown liquor or cheap beer and think about all the wrong they've done, all the wrong we all gotta do to get through the cold cruelty of mortality. What about a place like that?”

Well I don't know dude, that bar sounds like a bummer. Why do they have a karaoke night?


The Triangle will correct for most problems before they happen, but other problems can arise. Some songs contain hidden pitfalls and turnabouts that you never notice on the radio but are glaringly plain once you're up onstage trying to sing through them. The long surprise musical break and the Hey Jude Effect are two of the most common and can both cost a karaoketeer much of the room's vibe. However, these are also crisitunities to be turned to one's advantage if corrected for with bravery.

The Hey Jude Effect is probably the biggest calculated risk you work with under the Triangle Principle, especially when trying to select a song with strong singalong qualities. Put simply: beware the long vocal breakdown. My heart always goes out to the poor singer who puts in Hey Jude and then realizes he made a mistake somewhere around the seventh screen full of “NaaNaaaNaaaa NANANANAAAAHS.” The self-consciousness starts to set in, he starts to feel dumb standing up there reading nonsense syllables off a screen over and over again. The dancing slows, stops. (And Hey Jude dancing is usually only hippy wavy dancing in the first place; difficult to sustain without hallucinogens) Crowd and singer begin to blink at each other, wondering what one another is even doing there. What anyone is doing anywhere, really. DON'T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU.

Ideally, you know that a part like this is coming up in your song and you're ready for it. Maybe you stacked the stage with friends so you can chorus that shit proper and it's no problem. Sadly, the Hey Jude Effect usually catches us off guard. It's not until screen three of babble that you remember the part of the song you were stoked on where the singer just wails like a maniac for thirty-two bars or so. Lyrics are one thing but a singer's wails and caterwauls can leave the poor karaoke transcriptionist with some impossible spelling choices to make. The breakdown at the end of When Doves Cry usually contains a word that looks something like “doobiedoowowow” which is a fairly serviceable transliteration but somehow lacks the full verve of the noise that Prince makes around that part of the song.

You gotta treat the surprise long vocal breakdown like any other ambush: the only way out is through. If you don't remember exactly how it goes in the real song, follow along as best you can and make it your own. The crowd knows you aren't Stephen Tyler; they'll be happy if you just go for it. If you're super lost, look around and see if any of the front ranks of audience has been singing to themselves or to their friends at the table. Often, parts like this are a build up to the part of the song that everyone knows so if you start making some eye contact and inviting gestures, you stand a chance of someone who knows the song better bailing you out.

The super extended musical break is a similar problem. A long guitar solo is awesome when a live band is playing because you get to watch the guitar player really open it up. In karaoke, it's just a long stretch where the singer has nothing to do. And if you just stand there, waiting for it to be over and staring at the crowd, the whole idea of getting tipsy and singing by numbers in a dark room full of strangers starts to seem kind of ridiculous. AVOID THIS. In my view, there are but two remedies for a long musical break: total retreat or fucking going for it.

Keep your drink as near to you as you're allowed so you can fall back and take a few sips while the karaoke band guy tries to sound like Eddie Van Halen. Let the austerity of the empty stage serve as a backdrop; anyone dancing will scarcely notice your absence. They will, however, keenly feel your awkward, confused presence if you just stand there tapping your toe as if anyone believes you've been keeping count. If you're not gonna retreat then you've gotta do some stage moves, even dumb ones. Dance around, air guitar, pull a coin out from behind someone's ear – some damn thing besides just standing there!


Huhuhhuh, hey dude, wouldn't it be funny if I put in a song but instead of singing it good I shrieked it like really bad on purpose? Like really loud and bad for the whole song huhuhuhuhuhuh everyone will be like OH WHAT? Right? Huhhuhuhuhuhuh.”

NO. NO, YOU DIE. STUPID ASSHOLE YOU DIE. Don't ever do this. Never fucking do this. I hate this shit so much; it makes me want to rush the stage and confiscate the microphone. No, karaoke isn't an actual show. And no, you're not a professional singer or even a good one. But there is a crowd there, your voice is amplified and it's gonna go into their ears. The expectations at karaoke night are suborbital; they are very easy to meet. When some asshole can't be bothered to not even pass the bar of “don't be awful on purpose,” I feel like it should be legal to kick him in the chest and take his wallet.

In that last paragraph, I used the male pronoun quite deliberately because it is almost always dudes who pull this shit. Here's how it goes: they get up, get about halfway through the first verse of their song then they realize there's a crowd watching them and they get scared. They piss their stupid pants and shriek-sing the whole rest of the thing. What they're trying to say is “hahaha, I care so little about this performance that I'm shitcanning it on purpose hahahaha look how far outside the box I am, losers!” but what winds up coming across is “This no-stakes song terrifies me beyond belief because I'm so scared of getting caught trying something and failing that I never try much of anything, including putting forth the barest effort at making this song pleasant for anyone else in the room. Fuck you for being here and fuck this karaoke host for putting my song up. Hope you like ear pain! Actually no, I don't hope anything because I'm fucking spineless!”

It's a bullshit coward move pulled by bullshit cowardly people that have never taken a creative risk in their lives and resent the people who can. It's a crime against music, against conviviality and against the eardrums of everyone within the sound of their yowling. He is worthy of contempt for subjecting the room to the piercing proof of his cowardice. If he thinks his mockery touches on the amateur vocals that fill out the rest of the show then he has sorely missed the point of the evening.

Karaoke ain't about good singing; we have concerts for that. It's about a room of friends and strangers having a good time patching the entertainment the night together. Any game attempt to add positive inputs to that system are all to the good. Accidental loss of vibe is not to be encouraged, but it no cause for scorn. Active attempts at deflating the fun, however, are not to be tolerated.