There is no feeling quite like walking off the stage to high-fives and beer bottle salutes knowing that you just entered a place that was previously a bit dead and brought the motherfucking house down. Being able to crush it in karaoke is as essential to a man’s well-roundedness as being able to grill a medium-rare ribeye, tie a bow tie, or start a fire. But breaking the monotony between overzealous Justin Timberlake wannabes who are seriously trying to get discovered at some shithole in Austin and getting the whole bar to stand up and party with you is not easy to do. While some may find it daunting, I believe there is a heuristic that can be used at karaoke bars to optimize your chances of being the guy everyone will remember (for the right reasons).
Selecting the appropriate tune is easily the most important component of nailing your karaoke performance. It is also the most frequently overlooked, and coincidentally, the most frequent cause of bombing it on stage. You’ve got to have a good understanding of three things as you drunkenly write down those fateful words on that little sheet of paper: your own strengths and weaknesses, the audience, and the overarching situation.
But first, there are a few hard and fast rules that apply to any situation:
1) Sing something upbeat – This is so important. There are situations that call for “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” but picking these situations with accuracy is hard to do and not worth the risk. Southern/Classic Rock and old-school hip hop (nothing too vulgar) are typically safe choices. The one exception here is a tried-and-true country song (if you are in Texas or Nashville).
2) Sing songs that involve the crowd – Songs with tough-to-sing verses and ubiquitously-known choruses allow you to show off and involve the crowd at the same time. At these commonly-sung junctures, hold the mic out to 1) rest your voice, 2) let the crowd sing and feel involved. Also, if you have a wireless mic, walk around and hold the mic up to a few people that obviously know the words. Things like this elevate you from “singer” to “performer.”
3) Understand that the ’90s is everyone’s favorite decade – It’s just how it is. Always remember that people fucking LOVE the ’90s. On another note, people do not universally love the ’80s. I crushed “The Power of Love” (The Back to the Future song, circa 1985) one night in Nashville and heard crickets. When in doubt, sing something from the ’90s. It just works.
4) Pay the DJ – If you drop a 20 to the DJ (and you should because you are a grown man and grown men do grown men things), you will wait very little or not at all. And the DJ will love you.
5) Have fun – Crowds feed off the performer, and if you look miserable, the crowd will follow suit. Dance. Jump around. Play the fucking air guitar. If you act too serious you WILL look like a douche bag
6) Sing anything too obscure – most of the crowd should have heard the song before. People like to sing along at karaoke bars and if people don’t know the song, they simply won’t listen. This isn’t to say you should sing an over-performed “karaoke song,” as your go-to should be something you can always safely assume won’t already have been sung. Which leads into the next rule.
7) Sing something too overdone – if you can avoid it, don’t sing “Simple Man,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (everybody has seen Old School and gets that you are about to drop a few f-bombs, and no one will laugh, because you are a douchebag). Do something that everyone knows but has forgotten how much they loved. The nostalgia card is easily the most under-used card played in karaoke.
8) Sing something too vulgar – it gets uncomfortable after a while for both you and the crowd – just trust me.
SAS (Strenths, Audience, Situation)
Knowing your own strengths (and weaknesses) is the most important aspect of song choice because this decides your realm of possibilities. Can you carry a tune? Then take some calculated risks for Christ’s sake, nothing good ever came from playing it safe. Do you generally suck at singing? Then guess what, singing “Sweet Child O’ Mine” will do you zero favors. You should probably sing something that people know and will sing along with so that your shitty voice won’t have to carry the whole performance.
The second-most important component of song-choice is the audience. If you are in Nashville and everyone in the bar is named either Mailee, Colton, Leykin, or Bobby Rae, then you should probably do either country or (better yet) southern rock. I’ll explain why southern rock would be a better choice when speaking about the situation.
Finally, understanding and taking a minute to get a read on the situation cannot be overlooked. The situation is not mutually exclusive of skillset and audience, but rather these two components combined with the general aura of the place. Do not waltz into a bar and write down your go-to without seeing a couple performances and gauging the crowd’s reaction. I can attest that failing to do so can leave you in a really uncomfortable situation.
For example, I once made the mistake of walking into one of those live-band karaoke bars (which are awesome by the way) and immediately signed up for “Hard to Handle,” a classic Black Crowes track and typically a crowd pleaser. The first four songs I witnessed were either from Rob Zombie or Powerman 5000. I sang my song and the place was dead quiet throughout, easily my worst karaoke performance of all time. For starters, I could have looked around and noticed that the audience was wearing pretty much all black with a lot of Marilyn Manson garb flowing through the place.
Even so, after hearing the bar go ape over “Living Dead Girl,” I would have known immediately that a feel-good southern rock song would not be a crowd-pleaser. As in everything in life, it’s all about fucking context. That said, you should stray a bit from the genre that is being sung most often to get people’s attention. For instance, a country song at a country bar will get overlooked and be forgotten as soon as you walk off the stage. But people will remember you if you go up there and absolutely murder some Skynyrd or Joe Walsh (not Simple Man or Free Bird – see rule 6).
Let’s put these rules into practice:
Situation 1: You are at some college bar in Atlanta. This is the whitest group of people you have ever been around, lots of pastel polos shirts and whale logos. You suck at singing and are tone-deaf. It’s late.
Song: “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey or “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks. Listen, you can’t sing, and these uncultured fucks definitely listen to these songs 6 times a night at the frat house. They will sing the entire song for you, girls will probably even join you on stage, and no one will realize you suck at musical things. You just have to be willing to stomach the fact that you are indulging people who actually think that Journey is the best band of all time. (Note: I had a friend who did “Don’t Stop Believing” at a place like this in Chicago.)
He stood on a table and held the mic out to everyone for the extent of the song. Didn’t. Sing. A. Word. One of the best performances I’ve ever seen. People were buying him shots afterwards.
Situation 2: You walk into a place in which some depressed-looking dude is singing “What Goes Around” by Justin Timberlake. He’s being extremely serious. No one is watching. Great song, but Jesus, it’s a shitty karaoke song to listen to and no one can do a JT song justice. The crowd looks relatively diverse and begging for something a little more upbeat.
Song: Here you have a choice. I would switch over to some old-school hip hop. “OPP” by Naughty by Nature would be a real winner here if you have the balls and know the song. “This Is How We Do It” is a can’t miss as well, but you need to have some pipes. For the less musically-inclined, I would stay away until the crowd had perked up a bit. Or sing “500 Miles” by the Proclaimers so everybody can scream “Lotta Vodka” (or whatever the words are) 20+ times.
Situation 3: You are at a cash-only hole-in-the-wall place in Nashville and you’ve heard “A Country Boy Can Survive,” “Friends in Low Places,” and some 21-year-old girl just sang “Jesus Take the Wheel.” The first thought that comes to mind is “Why haven’t I left yet,” but you realize these people deserve better, and you are just the man for the job.
Song: Something southern rock, recognizable, but relatively obscure. Mind you, anything outside a set of about 30 songs is relatively obscure at one of these places. A couple of choices are 1) “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by the Georgia Satellites, 2) “Gimme Three Steps” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, if you have balls, sing 3) “Hard to Handle” by the Black Crowes. For 1 and 3, you should involve the crowd at the obvious junctures (See Rule 5).
Being a boss at karaoke is an endeavor that requires a bit of trial and error and commitment, but it is totally worth it once you get to the point where you know you can waltz into any bar and blow the roof off the place. If you are new to this, understand that you WILL fail sometimes, and that’s okay. It’s all about learning from your mistakes, adjusting accordingly, and having fun. Before long, you’ll be able to look at the crowd knowing that you’re about to turn a regular night at the karaoke bar into an epic one. You will feel, at least for the night, like a badass. .
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