Selecting the proper song for karaoke is a subtle art form, like painting the roof of the Sistine Chapel or silk-screening a collection of 32 cans of Campbell’s Soup.
OK. Maybe that’s overstating a touch.
Anyone can stand in front of a microphone and try to sing a song — that’s the basic premise on which the idea of karaoke is founded.
I remember intense hesitation at the thought of singing in front of a crowd of strangers and friends. But after some moderate coercion by my friend, Chris, — who used a magic elixir known as “alcohol” to whittle my resistance — there I was, pretending I could sing The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
That was several years ago now. I’m by no means a karaoke expert, but I have learned a few tricks along the way.
Trying to sing your song and attempting to do it in a way that doesn’t shatter glass, make dogs howl at the moon and send the barflies running for the exits, that’s another story.
So, here’s a few handy hints from the journeyman karaoke-r:
Rule No. 1 is song knowledge. Do not sing a song with which you’re not familiar. This seems obvious, but it is No. 1 because it is paramount. You can’t just know the first half really well and be fuzzy on the latter. Don’t go thinking you can do Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” without having a firm grasp on all 11 verses.
I have witnessed karaoke performances that were as painful as George Clooney’s torture scene in “Syriana” because the singer didn’t follow and respect rule No. 1.
The second rule then follows that just because you know it doesn’t mean you can sing it. If the cat runs and hides behind the TV when you’re practicing, it’s probably a sign that you’ve chosen something that’s a little out of your range. Despite the fact Journey seems to effortlessly recruit Steve Perry sound-alikes, it does not mean you should try “Don’t Stop Believin’.” If you honk like a squeeze toy when trying to sing Björk, it’s time to choose another tune.
This doesn’t just apply to the high notes. It’s a little-known fact that not everyone can brandish a low or gravelly voice. Only someone with a good angsty growl and fire in the belly should attempt a Tool song.
Knowing your range is essential if you want to impress. I absolutely love John Legend’s “Ordinary People,” but there is a reason he is paid to sing it and perform it and I am not — his singing voice does not sound like the mating call of a wild animal. This stands as a warning to many, many would-be vocalists who think sauntering to the microphone and belting out anything in Pharrell’s famed falsetto is as easy as walking are sorely mistaken. Know your register and be OK with it.
Third is picking a popular song. Frankly, what you sing makes a statement about what you like, so this is tough. I’m a habitual offender of this rule. One time, I flipped through the titles and selected Live’s “They Stood Up for Love” because I love the lyrics. This was quite the song-selection faux pas — I could hear pool balls clacking against each other in an adjoining room as I sang. When you pick something obscure, the audience says, “It’s nice that you have an encyclopedic knowledge of music. No one cares. Now sit down.”
It’s important to choose something which represents you, yes, but not at the risk of alienating the audience. You won’t find me singing Neil Diamond or Madonna unless I’ve lost a bet. Also, this also goes back to Rule No. 1 — upon losing said bet, I’ll sprint to “Sweet Caroline” or “Ray of Light” because I know the words.
That gives us the fourth and final rule, a hokey one, but an important one. You can master the other three, but if you don’t own your performance, no one else will want to see you near the stage again. Some people are born with stage presence and others not, but you might get the leather-clad guy sporting the 10-gallon hat and cowboy boots in the back of the room singing along to “Fake Plastic Trees” if you’ve got enough passion and chutzpah.
These rules aren’t guaranteed to turn you from an “American Idol” reject into Josh Groban, but hopefully, they’ll have you turning a few heads the next time you step to the mike.
Now, go forth and wow ’em with your stunning rendition of “Friends in Low Places.”