How to karaoke like a boss, no matter your singing skills.
New Zealanders love to sing. And when I say New Zealanders, I mean our Māori, Pasifika and Asian communities, obviously. We sing to make a point, to support each other, to tell stories. We sing to our gods, we sing when we’re sad, and we sing just because we like the sound of our own voices.
I think that’s why we love karaoke so much – it’s already ingrained in us that singing has many functions other than “performance”. Having a good sing song is something we share with the Irish and most religions, but I suspect it comes from a very primal, God-shaped need in all of us to howl at the moon or chant or express joy with noise. To anyone that hasn’t yet experienced the joy of it, I say – plug that god-shaped hole with karaoke.
Since its birth in Japan in the early 70s, karaoke has become the ideal accompaniment to a night out all over the world. It’s the literal best. A common misconception is that you have to be “good” at singing to be good at karaoke. This a lie, a falsehood, a fallacy. People who are good at karaoke have merely picked up some tricks that make the experience enjoyable for them, and for the people listening. It’s about what works for you. Personally, I have a narrow range, and I lose my voice easily, so I like slow songs because they’re low effort but there’s room for DRAMA. I’ll usually only do one or two songs, and I sing for me, not to put on a show for someone else (unless my friends are hyping me up, then it’s all “welcome to the Moulin Rouge”).
Here are some of my tips, to help in the battle against karaoke hesitancy, and some etiquette for old hands to think about too.
- Make sure you know the whole song, not just the chorus. Not every single word, that’s what the 90s-acid-trip-hell videos are for. But you have to at least know the melody or the cadence of the verses. Rap is usually where people trip up the most here – no melody and the same instrumental bars on a loop will give you NO CLUES where you’re at in the song.
TFW when you don’t know the Lisa Left Eye verse in ‘Waterfalls’
- Leave it all on the stage. Or don’t if that’s your style, but if you’re feeling it, go hard. Throw shapes, pose, make it clap, we love to see it all. I’ve seen people moved to tears by their own interpretive dance performance of ‘Nothing compares 2 U’. Let those demons out, Janice! It’s your time.
- Pick a favourite song from your teen or preteen years. These are the songs etched into your soul, the ones you’d sit up in your coffin for if someone put it on at your funeral. You’ll know the song inside out, every “uh”, “yeah” and “come on Barbie, let’s go party”. Chances are it’s a guilty pleasure you’ll share with half the room, who will sing along joyously and make you feel like bloody Robbie Williams, or someone else equally cool and relevant.
- Stay in your range. Like I said, you don’t have to be able to hold a tune for your song to be enjoyable for listeners, but high-pitched screeching is no one’s idea of a party. Songs that are in a mid-range include: All Saints ‘Never Ever’, Fleetwood Mac – ‘Dreams’, Marc Cohn – ‘Walking in Memphis’, Montell Jordan – ‘This is How We Do It’, Natalie Imbruglia – ‘Torn’, TLC – ‘No Scrubs’, Janis Joplin – ‘Piece of My Heart’, Outkast – ‘Hey Ya’. You get the idea. Beatles, Elvis, Tom Jones, Rod Stewart and Rolling Stones are pretty safe too, but only really sound cool if you’re an uncle with a fat, old school vibrato. There’s a koro that hangs out at my usual spot with Brylcreem-ed hair and a leather jacket who loves to serenade a hen’s night. I swear that guy has ruined marriages.
- Keep a list of songs. When I’m listening to music and I’m reminded of a song I like that’s in my range (or I hear someone else sing one), then I add it to a note on my phone for next time. Yes I know that’s weird and sad. But song-choice panic is real and people who are put on the spot often make bad choices. Speaking of bad choices…
- Try to be cool. There is no such thing as a “cool” karaoke choice. If it doesn’t spark joy, put it back.
- Pick up the second microphone on someone else’s song unless invited. This has happened to me a lot lately, and I’m not gonna lie – it’s why I needed to get some do’s and don’ts off my chest. To all the manic pixie, main-character, art school girls that keep trying to steal my limelight – gtfo or catch these hands.
- Sing the n-word if you are not Black. Aaron, no. There is no rule that you have to sing every word on screen. If you’re as pale as white sliced and are putting Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ on specifically so you can say the n-word 100 times, please report to the nearest polluted, urban creek and place yourself within it.
- Play the instruments. OK so there’s mixed opinion on this. If a private karaoke room has kindly provided maracas, tambourines or any other cute percussion, maybe read the room before smashing away a-rhythmically while someone tries to find their groove on ‘Wicked Game’. I once watched as a friend ask an enthusiastic lady with a tambourine “Can I look at that for a sec?”, and then placed the tambourine in the bin. He was right to do it, but if looks could kill his children would be orphans.
Songs to stay away from
Tell me to go punch myself in the face by all means, but as a veteran of karaoke, these are some of the most common mood killers I’ve witnessed in both public and private rooms.
The Eagles – ‘Hotel California’
The thing people forget is it’s more instrumental than singing, and watching you sway awkwardly as it fades out for two whole minutes is a waste of everyone’s precious time. I want the literal hours of my life spent doing this back, Dave. I want them back! See also: David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’. It’s a cool song but with a 44 BAR INSTRUMENTAL OUTRO.
Waiting for ‘Hotel California’ to end like…
Eminem – ‘Forgot About Dre’
Congratulations, you know the “Nowdays everybody wanna talk” bit. Quantitative evidence suggests you don’t actually know the verses, and by the time you realise this, you’ll be in too deep, frantically trying to keep up with the words on the screen like a concussed newsreader with a haunted autocue, making us all feel bad for you.
Adele – ‘Hello’
The low verse, high chorus is one of karaoke’s biggest traps. This will draw you in with its opening lovely, low “hello” but that’s about the only note of the song in your range. The chorus will turn your vocal cords to sandpaper and cause your audience’s ear drums to rupture. See also: Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’ and Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’. Unless you know you have the range, probably best to stay away from Whitney, Mariah and Céline too (although ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now’ is pretty manageable since it sounds fine if you sing it an octave lower than Céline does).
The Cranberries – ‘Zombie’
Dolores O’Riordan RIP was an artist with a specific gift. You will sound like a goat made of bagpipes being beaten to death with a vuvuzela. The Cranberries’ other big hit, ‘Dreams’, is however a delightful choice.
Queen – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Journey – ‘Don’t Stop Believing’
You don’t really need me to explain why, do you? Look, be the 55,678,899th dudebro to do either of these, Dave, but I just think you’re a better, more creative human being than that. I just want more for you.
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