The Perfect Karaoke Song

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:

Is appropriate for the venue: So says Laura. “For instance, I might consider performing Reba McEntire’s ‘Fancy’ at a place like Changes. I would NOT perform the same song… um… anywhere else.”

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.

41 thoughts on “The Perfect Karaoke Song

  1. This is more of a general rule… but pick your own song rather than allow others to do it for you. This is how I ended up singing “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls and didn’t really own it like I would have had I selected it for myself.

  2. A swelling emotional climax is great, especially if you can do it totally straight when people are expecting a knowing wink.

    I started doing Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” after seeing The Postal Service do a cover. It’s a great karaoke song.

  3. Oh my God, Against All Odds. One of my best mates likes to come round, drink, then sing it while I accompany him on piano. I love it.

    I favour a karaoke song with a low, easy-does it first verse, followed by massive vocal rocking-out, e.g. Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’. Although it does have hiatuses? hiates? in it that require one to be a confident air guitarist.

    I once won a karaoke contest for singing ‘Night Fever’ as all three Bee Gees, and I don’t get many opportunities to mention that, so I’ll mention it now.

  4. I actually did “Bohemian Rhapsody” and not only is it 40 minutes long, but there are about 12 vocal parts going on at once. 100% pure humiliation.

    My go-to song is now “Whip It” because it’s short and easy to sing and you can whip the mic cord during the brief one-note solo.

  5. If you truly can’t sing a note, try “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” There’s no singing required – but there are excessive musical interludes.

  6. Rules to live by, especially #s 1 and 3. I have it on good authority (from two karaoke DJs) that the worst 3 songs for karaoke are “American Pie”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and “Piano Man”.

    The last rule, though, depends on the effect you are trying to achieve. I’ve gotten some enthusiastic audience participation for “Closer”, but then I am probably more appreciated for my amusing physical comedy than my voice.

  7. It needs to have a chorus that doesn’t get repeated 50 million times as well.

    And really the key in addition to everything you’ve listed is you have to be willing to throw everything you have into it. My karaoke song is “White Rabbit”. It fits most of your requirements and I can throw everything I have into it. I have a friend who is able to do it with “Stand by Your Man”.

    And if you want to go to karaoke but don’t want to have to actually sing, then go with a bunch of people who sing in choruses already and/or did in college. You probably won’t even be asked to sing all night.

  8. Just a note, I also “know the words” to End of the World. Further, NO ONE (including Stipe) actually knows the words to End of the World. If you, me, and Michael each sang this song 50 times in a row, no two renditions would be alike.

    This reminds me, how did Tommy and Richard get all the way to the second verse before realizing that they didn’t know the words? Maybe they just found that station during the chorus? Always bugged me …

  9. I would say avoid slow non-ironic ballads as much as possible. It brings the mood to a crawl and we all know the person is just showing off. There are plenty of fun songs that require rockin’ singing skills, so stick to those.

  10. Oh how I wish I had read this list 7 years ago when, in a crushingly awkward moment at my own 34th birthday party, I dedicated a certain Martin Gaye song to my…wait for it…younger brother. There was a really good reason for it at the time, but my future mother-in-law whose eyes I was looking into as that soulful crooning started was not aware of this. And really, there is not a good reason. Fortunately, she still gave her daughter away to me at our wedding, but I don’t think either of us have ever quite gotten over it.

  11. Know thine audience: The type of establishment you’re in should dictate the kind of song you sing. For instance, I might consider performing Reba McEntire’s “Fancy” at a place like Changes. I would NOT perform the same song… um… anywhere else.

  12. Drama. You need to build the drama. Put some thought into delivery -i.e. a mousy asian girl with glasses belting out “Total Eclipse of the Heart” with reckless abandon. Making it impactful as “total babe once you get rid of the glasses and unbraid your hair ..huh, did ally sheedy start that trend in the breakfast club?” type of ploy makes it memorable.

  13. Matt, you need to try Francis Farmer Organ Karaoke. The songbook is a work of art. All bad (subjective of course) karaoke songs have been removed. Plus the book has a great index.

  14. I’m a shy karaoke-r, so I like to sing a song that the bar will sing along to (Wonderwall works wonderfully for me).

    It’s obviously a rule for rookies, but the importance of actually knowing the song is important. Many’s the time I’ve seen someone pick a song because they know the chorus, and just stand there, blankly at the first lines. If you can’t think of the first line when you’re looking at the song title in the book, don’t pick it.

  15. I keep this list in my iPhone address book of a set of not-so-obvious standbys in case a Karaoke evening pops up as a surprise: Cats in the Cradle, Bad Bad Leroy Brown, Born To Be Wild, Bobby McGee, Margaritaville, Boot Scottin’ Boogie, Copacabana (breaks require dancing), Mamas Don’t let your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys. Folsom Prison, Jackson (Johnny Cash), Jumping Jack Flash, Boston – Long Time, When I Fall in Love Aaron Neville, Bad company Until I Die, I will survive, Ruby Ruby Ruby, Rhinestone Cowboy, Summer Nights.

    A few extra rules – be diverse in your style – not all show tunes, a little country, some rock – mix it up. Also have duets prepared where you can sing both parts to help your singing partner out.

    Thanks for a great list.

  16. As a veteran of far too many karaoke nights, including those in Tokyo, one of which left me with perhaps my Worst. Hangover. Ever. I approve heartily of all of your criteria.

    There are many songs that work, from many different artists, but the group whose songs almost always meet all of your criteria is…minor-league drum roll…The Beatles. Whether it’s Eleanor Rigby, Nowhere Man, Hey Jude, Norwegian Wood, Sergeant Pepper, Strawberry Fields, Happiness is a Warm Gun, Yellow Submarine, etc etc etc, so many of them work so well and satisfy most if not all of your requirements

  17. Short musical interludes are good for taking a drink. And if there’s a verse of instrumental stuff in the middle of the song, you can always fill the time by singing the middle part of End of the Road (“girl, I’m here for you. All those nights when you got up and ran out with that other fella. Baby I knew about it…I just didn’t care”). You don’t even have to know the correct words…always good for a laugh.

    Shouldn’t you just pick from the list of songs that are 2 minutes and 42 seconds? I like Safety Dance, even though it’s officially not 2’42”.

    I also like Bust a Move.

  18. Despite the Beatles endorsement, I also agree heartily with partial robot about varying your style, and including a little country, even though I don’t usually like country music. Also some show tunes. “I Remember It Well” from Gigi is one that works well, but there are so many others. “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady is another.

  19. Not too long, as the Bohemian Rhapsodizer gets but doesn’t formalize. I’ve seen many a brave soul dashed against the twelfth verse of Rapper’s Delight or American Pie…

    Also, if you are a straight white guy in your thirties/forties, stay away from Baby Got Back. I promise, it seems funnier and cooler than it is.

  20. James Brown – I Feel Good, Cee-Lo – Fuck You for a younger crowd, any of the upbeat songs off of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (assuming you can hit those notes).

  21. Funny you should mention Radiohead–I got convinced by a colleague of mine to sing “Karma Police” with her while doing Karaoke in Tokyo. Worst. song. ever. Many better songs listed in the comments!

  22. Overly slow stuff probably bores people. I’m sorry for such karaoke lead balloons as “Landslide” and Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why.” Though my worst karaoke misstep of all time was trying to do “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” when my compatriots didn’t really know the words and I had laryngitis.

    As for karaoke success: Madonna! Everyone loves “Like A Prayer.”

    “Son of a Preacher Man” is also awesome.

    Finally, as as a woman more comfortable with the lower registers of my voice (alto in choirs, mezzo soprano by deluded voice teachers, tenor as necessary), anything that lets me show that off is cool, ala House of the Rising Sun.

  23. Well, I won’t claim to have THE definitive version of REM’s “The End of the World…” but by dint of hours sitting in front of a stereo with a very sensitive pause and rewind button on the cassette deck (yeah, that long ago – deal) I do have A consistent, largely coherent version that I think would stand up to pretty much any transcription. Details available upon request. Haven’t had the guts to actually sing it in a karaoke bar, though I can strum along with it on the guitar, which even Stipe doesn’t do.

    REM’s “Man in the Moon” is surprisingly manageable as krokey too, by the way.

    The songs I’ve had the best success with in actual karaoke situations, though – judging by audience response as well as my own assessment – are:
    “Night Moves” (Seger)
    “Santa Monica” (Everclear)
    “Wicked Game” (Isaak) and
    “Werewolves of London” (Zevon) – ah-hoooo!

    And my coworker Terry and I have had a lot of fun with Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” – la de da de dee…

    I did fail pretty badly with “Mexican Radio” (Wall of Voodoo)… while I can do a fair Stan Ridgway, there’s too much repetitiveness and instrumental agony (plus, well, it’s not necessarily friendly to a multiethnic audience). And my own experience with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”… sure, it doesn’t demand a large vocal range, but you’d better be able to throw it down like an auctioneer, baby; Daniels talks *fast*.

    This has been a fun thread… good post, and good comments; thanks for reading!

  24. A whole lot of the Grammy winners for best song are good for this:
    Volare (you know it as Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu, most likely), if you can memorize italian
    The Battle of New Orleans, if you can put on a funny fake southern twang…
    For two or three at once Michelle by the beatles is really easy to harmonize with, if you can memorize simple french
    Same for Up Up and Away by the 5th dimension, minus the french
    Games people Play for southern places
    Bette Davis Eyes
    Every Breath You Take
    What’s Love Got To Do With It
    Don’t worry be happy, if you can whistle, and talk-sing
    Kiss From A Rose, but it does have a bit of instrumental
    Change The World
    Not Ready to Make Nice
    And this year’s winner, Need You Now, is good for two

  25. I love these! I’m considering printing the list and stealthily placing it in the song book at the dive-y karaoke bar in my hometown.

  26. Excellent tips. I’d also add:

    – If an American Idol contestant might sing that song to win it all, it’s probably a bad choice. Karaoke is less about showing off your MAD VOCAL SKILLZ as it is entertaining the crowd. Believe me, your amazingly tender vibrato in “Angie” is going to be completely lost when that softball team starts screaming for another round of Jaeger Bombs.

    – Instrumental sections of over 4 measures are acceptable if (and only if) you are willing to do one of the following wholeheartedly and without reservation:
    – a signature dance (such as the Morris Day Slide during “Jungle Love”)
    – over-the-top sound effects (thunderclaps during “Turn Around (Bright Eyes)”, for instance)
    – scat falsetto instrumental accompaniment WITH A PARTNER (sax solo during “Careless Whispers” or guitar solo in “More than a Feeling”)

    – Unless you can repeat that rap song drunk, solo, and entirely from memory, don’t even try. Seriously, whatever song you’re thinking of is eleven times faster than you think it is.

  27. So, following these rules, the perfect Karaoke song is… “Rock the Casbah” by the Clash.

    Sorry, the worst 2 karaoke songs are those wretched, interminable duets, “Summer Nights” from Grease and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (the absolute worst) from Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell.

  28. Sorry Liz, but both Cheap Trick songs you’re likely to encounter in a Karaoke catalog, “I Want You To Want Me” and “Surrender” are both loathsomely repetitive, something I’ve re-discovered at the mic a few times.

  29. so I know I’m a little bit late on the thread – but I also know that I’m a pretty good vocalist… I love going to the bar on a Sunday night and wailing a good song. The only problem is that I’m in a bar full of drunk hipster kids. There’s a finals round (competition, right?!) and then the winner is chosen. The finalists (generally 6) and the winner (1 sometimes 2) are chosen SOLELY by the bartenders at said hipster bar. Who are often times drunk as well, or of course in high favor of their drunk friend that didn’t sing any of the words to that last obscure band song that everyone loves. I’ve got a lot of standards and oldies under my belt but they’re not digging any of my pop songs and you can forget about musicals/broadway. I’m having issues finding great songs to sing.

    songs I sing well

    Hallelujah – J. Buckley (or any version)
    Creep – Radiohead
    All my lovin’ – The Beatles
    Valerie – Amy Winehouse/Mark Ronson
    Sittin’ on the dock of the bay – Otis Redding
    Georgia on my mind – Ray Charles
    Adele songs (but not in my key)
    Beyonce songs
    Lady Gaga Songs…

    The list goes on but I’m drawing a blank…

  30. I love the songs that get the crowd involved. This song is great for an audience that doesn’t mind shouting obscenities. I can’t sing this one, as it would fit a smooth male bass sound better.
    Tom Jones – Delilah…and then the crowd taints the mellow sound on the chorus, during the breaths after he sings her name by shouting “you bitch, you slut, you whore”

  31. New age girl by dead eye dick.

    No vocal range, slight innuendo, link to dumb and dumber, short, not too repetitive, guitar solo under 20 seconds.

    And people know it, but it wont be sung too often

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