March 22nd, 2011
Here’s a question for ya: what is the perfect karaoke song?
Wait, don’t answer yet. Because I’m not asking for titles, the “Brown Eyed Girls”s and the “I Will Survive”s. I am asking about qualities. What are the characteristics of the perfect karaoke song?
This has been on my mind recently, as I have found myself in no less than two karaoke establishments this month. The first was the newly opened Rockbox on Capitol Hill, which features private “Japanese-Style” rooms. Highly recommended if you are willing to fork over a small fortune for the luxury of moaning “Girlfriend in a Coma” to a cadre of your closest friends. (That’s a sincere endorsement by the way–loved this place, despite the expense.)
Then, a week later, I found myself in the Baranof. The Baranof is the kind of joint where your table receives complementary jello shots if the bartender discovers that you are celebrating a 40th birthday, and the waitress will sort of creepily massage the shoulders of the birthday boy while he chokes his down (don’t ask me how I know this). The Baranof also had a nautical theme, which fit in well with a karaoke system that made everyone sound submerged.
So anyway, I am clearly qualified to opine on this question. And after careful analysis of the songs I think work well at karaoke, conducted this morning between my second and third cup of coffee, here are what I believe to be the attributes of crowdpleaser:
Short: Brevity is not only the soul of wit, it is essential to not being remembered as “the guy who sang ‘American Pie’ for an hour and a half”. I think four minutes is about the maximum before you start to wear out your welcome. That excludes “Bohemian Rhapsody”, FYI.
Not too obscure …: Unless there’s a specific person in the crowd that you are trying to impress with Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Snow Song Pt. 1″, save it for the shower. If the audience wanted to feel dumb about their lack of musical diversity, they would be in a hipster bar instead of a karaoke bar.
… but not quite a standard: The ideal selection is one that makes people excitedly exclaim, “oh yeah this song!”. And that ain’t gonna happen with “Sweet Caroline” (a song I have personally heard wafting out of more karaoke bars than radios). I recently had great success with Dobie Gray’s Drift Away, a song that eveyone in the crowd knew but had forgotten. A friend of mine gets a similar reaction with Blister in the Sun.
Wall-to-wall vocals: Beware the “36 measure instrumental”! Unless you can bust a passable move during the guitar solo, try to find a song that doesn’t contain vast swaths of downtime for the singer. My recent experimentation with “Jessie’s Girl” will not be replicated, as much of my performance involved lallygagging on stage with nothing to do. Especially dangerous are those songs with an interminable outro. You will spend the last minute of “Burning Down the House” agonizing over whether to sit down or just stand there like a chump.
Distinctive: Pick something that you can do well and most cannot. “It’s The End of the World As We Know It” is one of my staples, because it can only be performed by someone who has memorized the lyrics (as I have). My ability to pronounce (though not, alas, understand) Spanish is an asset for “La Bamba”. And even though my delivery of Radiohead’s “Creep” is shaky overall, I have the long, wailing, “Ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun!” part down pat.
In your range (even if not of your gender): “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is exactly in my range (and, like “Creep”, has a memorable belt-out-the-sustained-note bit at the end), which is why I will pick Pat Benatar over the male-but-way-too-high Steve Perry any day. A female friend of mine, meanwhile, does an amazing Bon Jovi. Do not assume that you can automatically sing tracks by artists of your sex, and must forego those of the other persuasion. Which brings us to …
Requires as little falsetto as possible: Your falsetto does not sound even remotely as good in the real world as it does in your head. Someone explained this to me after I attempted “Take on Me”. Learn from my mistake, guys.
Is not Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”: Just … yeah, no. It’s awkward.
What am I forgetting?
Update! Two from the comments, to make this an even 10:
Doesn’t have a chorus that repeats ad nauseam: While I agree with latenac in principle, it’s always fun to watch the panic creep into a singer’s eyes as he urges the crowd to “Take it to the limit, one more time” for what is in fact the seventh time (and with no end in sight).
This one also rules out Daft Punk’s Around the World, which is a shame.