Humanity has achieved so many extraordinary things in recent times. We’ve invented space travel, self-driving cars and the little red light that tells Kyle Sandilands when to shut up. But I would argue that of all the rich bounty which science has bequeathed to humankind, there is nothing finer than karaoke.
Sure, I wouldn’t win that argument, but, in the best spirit of amateur karaoke performers everywhere, I’d give it a solid go anyway. Because karaoke gives everybody the chance to be a star. A star with a dodgy synthesised backing track, a voice swamped by clunky digital reverb, and music videos that only ever seem to feature trams trundling around San Francisco, but a star nonetheless.
Karaoke is the most democratic art form. Literally anybody can do it, and if you’ve ever stuck an ear to the door of an adjoining karaoke room at 2am, literally anybody does. Karaoke gives all of us the chance to sing ‘My Way’ our way, whether we’re tone deaf or are able to rise to the greatest height possible in the realm of karaoke, that of the RSL cover band vocalist. That’s right – by paying a mere $10 at your local karaoke boutique, you can live out your fantasy of becoming the lead singer of ‘Non Jovi: The Bon Jovi Experience’. Karaoke lets anybody experience livin’ on a prayer, and for that it deserves our admiration and most heartfelt thanks.
But as Australia heads inexorably towards Japan, which has a karaoke palazzo on practically every corner, it’s important to educate ourselves on certain points of sing-along etiquette. I have spent dozens of nights in dingy rooms, loudly advising Mustang Sally to slow that Mustang down, and I have distilled that hard-won experience into the following list of dos and don’ts. What’s more, I am willing to admit to making all of the following mistakes in my early days except one – can you guess which?
1) Don’t double up
If there’s one golden rule, this is it: putting two songs on in a row is the most annoying thing you can do. And sheepishly saying “Oh, this was me too” as though you didn’t notice and just got carried away with sheer enthusiasm, is no excuse. I’ve even seen the occasional triple up, which really does stretch any friendship.
2) Don’t hog the second mike
This is the sneaky way to double up. Every room has a minimum of two microphones, and occasionally someone appoints themselves everybody else’s backup singer. Put. Down. That. Microphone. Srsly.
3) Never allow the mask of irony to slip
Some of us fancy ourselves as pretty good singers. That’s fine, of course. But what isn’t fine is betraying this through your song selection, and choosing a song that isn’t designed to amuse your fellow karaokeistas, but to show off your voice. There’s a fine line with this, of course, but a good test is this: would the song you’re choosing set off the dancefloor at at 21st where the Responsible Service of Alcohol legislation had been largely overlooked? By way of example, ‘I Will Always Love You’ fails this test, yet curiously ‘My Heart Will Go On’ does not.
4) Don’t force anyone to sing
A bit of good-natured encouragement is fine, but for some people it’s their biggest fear. What this means is that if they’re forced to sing, they’ll never come back to karaoke. This is not in your long-term. People who don’t want to sing but still enjoy it at least tolerate karaoke are priceless, as they give you a precious audience for your rendition of Toto’s ‘Africa‘ without taking up any of your turns. They’re even more valuable if they like to dance on the sofa.
5) No more than two Oasis songs per session
They are so long and so dull and so self-indulgent, seriously. You won’t remember how long and dull they are until two minutes in, but they are. This especially applies to ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, ‘D’You Know What I Mean’’ and ‘Champagne Supernova’ and ‘Stand By Me’. ‘Wonderwall’ and anything from Definitely Maybe is generally acceptable – it’s the tedious ballads with lots of lame guitar noodling you want to watch out for. Speaking of which…
6) No Guns ‘n’ Roses
That’s right – none. Ever. The reason is this. As yet, karaoke producers haven’t learnt to cut out long guitar solos. And that means that even though ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ is an awesome song, you spend solid minutes listening to a crappy MIDI recreation of Slash’s licks. The same goes for ‘Patience’, but worst of all is ‘November Rain’, which is NINE MINUTES LONG, nearly all of which is instrumental.
7) Pass the microphone around during ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Paranoid Android’
Not only is it more fun, but singing a song that long all by yourself can tend to seem a little too much like showing off. Unless you’re actually Thom Yorke or Freddie Mercury, in which case… yeah, it still seems a little like showing off.
8) A little R&B goes a long way
This is probably a taste thing, but unless you actually are Beyoncé or Rihanna, their songs can be fairly tedious. Those songs also tend to fail the irony rule, especially when sung by women with good voices who can tend to sound a little like they’re auditioning for Australian Idol.
9) Don’t do rap tracks unless you’ve rehearsed
If you’ve ever thought rap was just talking, and therefore easy, then give it a go sometime. Unless you know the exact rhythm of each line, you’ll find it surprisingly difficult. Eminem is particularly difficult because he raps so quickly, but even sluggish ol’ Dr Dre uses complex rhythms. In general I don’t advocate rehearsing at home because it’s way too much like effort and therefore not ironic, but if you want to pull off something like ‘Baby Got Back’, one of the great ironic karaoke numbers, you really need to be across the rhythm. And you thought Sir Mix-A-Lot wasn’t capable of complexity!
10) If isn’t working, press STOP.
I’m sure we’ve all thought it would be hilarious to sing something like ‘Music Of The Night’ from Phantom of the Opera, and it is, oh it is, but only for about a minute. After you’ve had a bit of laugh, don’t subject everyone to the rest of the song. Press Stop. It’s rude to press Stop in the middle of somebody else’s song (as I once proved during a friend’s rendition of the very languid ‘No Surprises’ by Radiohead’) but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to drop unsubtle hints. Miming a throat being slit often communicates the message quickly and effectively.
I have set out these rules in the hope of encouraging harmonious karaoke in both senses, and am the first to confess that I’ve repeatedly broken almost all of them (except the R&B one, in case you’re wondering). But karaoke has been great for me because it gave me the confidence to try singing in public. The first time I was terrified, but now I have no shame. And that’s the beauty of the karaoke mask of irony, because you need never seem like you’re making an effort, or you think you can sing. Sure, my embrace of karaoke may not be a great thing for those who have to listen to me do it, but in my mind, I’m a star. And for that, I say thank you, Japan. Arigato gozaimasu.
If I’ve forgotten any vital karaoke rules, please add them in the comments below.