In what world does this sound like a good time? You are in a dark room, surrounded by drunks you don’t know, and some you know too well. Your favorite song is playing, only it’s a compressed, simplified version void of lyrics. You are holding a cheap microphone, and the fate of the next three minutes is in your hands, and most crucially, your voice. For many, this sounds like a grand ol’ time, and it is the enthusiasm of that majority that keeps karaoke alive. For me, it is the stuff of nightmares.
One might assume that any avid music fan, particularly someone that makes a living writing about music and fandom, would enjoy nothing more than showing the whole wide world, or at least the whole wide bar, their hidden chops and impeccable tastes. Music critics are all supposed to be failed musicians, right? What better way to display our unappreciated talent, to walk our daily talk? Obviously not all critics have left trails of defunct bands behind them, but it’s true that many of them love their karaoke—and I certainly know a few who have the same passion for it that John Goodman’s character has for bowling in The Big Lebowski. Things get competitive. Not only is vocal technique scrutinized, but the very song you choose to sing might as well have its own scoring category.
There are only three approaches to choosing a crowd-pleasing track. Your selections will typically go well if they fall into one of these categories: 1) Timeless Songs, i.e. “Crazy” by Patsy Cline, or “Crying” by Roy Orbison, though I strongly deter you from both unless you have serious pipes. 2) Nostalgic Songs, meaning songs that the crowd grew up on. These are often cuts once thought of as bubblegum garbage, but with the passage of time have been crowned in the High Court of Pop Classics. For instance, Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” and anything by Britney or Destiny’s Child. And then there’s category number 3) Ironic Songs. In my experience, this is the most mined category, probably because everyone is in for a good laugh at 2:45 a.m., and no one has to worry about the quality of their voice while singing “Last Resort” by Papa Roach. Apply this formula the next time you go to Korea Town and rent a room. I assure you, it works, and I learned it from years of going to karaoke parties, doing nothing but watching from afar.
In fact, I was just at one last weekend. Unfortunately for pedestrian karaoke enthusiasts, this shindig was 90% musician-populated, which results in a disadvantage to the less musically-inclined folks in attendance. Still, the formula applied. Someone sang George Jones (Timeless), a couple dueted Sugar Ray (Nostalgic), and a trio of dudes unleashed their worst alt-rock baritone for a rendition of Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment” (Ironic). About midway through the performances, a friend asked me, “So, are you going to sing anything?” “Oh no,” I said, “I’m a sadist. I only watch.”
Friends and family usually interpret my refusal to sing karaoke as some kind of repression, or at the very least, a curmudgeonly, fun-hating trait of mine. I don’t blame them for thinking this, but it’s just not true. The fact of the matter is: I simply loathe performing. I hate the game, not the players. Nothing makes my skin crawl more than the thought of being in the center of a room, shuffling through a song and dance while being watched by others. I’d rather swim through an in-ground pool filled with mayonnaise (again, while no one is watching) than bare my soul, and exhibit my most private pastime to an audience.
It’s not that I dislike singing. Quite the contrary, in fact, I love it. The first thing I do when I realize I’m alone in my apartment is blast tunes and sing along at the top of my lungs. Sometimes these private karaoke sessions are paired with elaborate, and slightly dangerous dances through the kitchen. I can be very performative, but I’m not an exhibitionist, and my spoon wielding, choreographed versions of Kate Bush’s “Suspended in Gaffa” are for my eyes and ears only.
Maybe I could trace my fear of public singing back to a wedding I attended with my dad over 15 years ago. It wasn’t a particularly fancy wedding, but what it lacked in panache it made up for with a karaoke machine (aka, a humiliation station). My father, who has been a musician since childhood, may or may not have sung a song that day; I truly can’t remember. What I do remember was him shuddering when someone went sharp, grimacing if they fell flat, and quietly critiquing their mic technique (or lack thereof). A large portion of my family are performing musicians, and sometimes I think they’re waiting for the day I’ll burst into song along with them by the campfire. But sitting with my dad and listening to that wedding karaoke over a decade ago, I think I learned that I like things a lot better on the other side of the microphone.