As with all things good and holy, it started with Madonna.
The first time I did karaoke I sang “Papa Don’t Preach” with a German exchange student I knew in college named Claudia. Claudia was very tall. She looked like Uma Thurman and wore orange pants. I coveted her height, her good looks, and most of all those pants. If Claudia told me to dance , I danced. And if she told me to sing Madonna, I sang Madonna. It is possible I did these things because she ordered me to do them in a thick, authoratitive German accent, but I trusted her. She had the courage to wear orange pants. How could she lead me astray?
We did not sing the song very well, but we gave it all we had. It was the German way. And the crowd seemed to love it. Maybe because they thought Uma Thurman had made a stop at the Cedar Falls Diamond Dave’s. I don’t know. But I thought the cheers were for me. And I ate it up.
That was nearly 15 years ago. Since that time, I have devoted many a weekend to practicing the ancient art of karaoke. It is a delicate balance between talent and showmanship. I have made many missteps along the way.
To help guide me in my pursuit of bringing quality entertainment to the 20 or so people gathered in a particular bar on a particular evening, I have developed a list of rules. Hopefully you can glean something from them and find yourself on the road to becoming a karaoke star in your own right.
The first rule is “Punch your weight.” This rule is also known as “Never, ever under any circumstances attempt Mariah Carey unless you are actually Mariah Carey. It doesn’t matter how many drinks you’ve had or how much you ” luuuv” the song. Just don’t. I mean it. Don’t.”
A lot of singers who do karaoke are there to showcase their vocal acrobatics. They’ve taken years of vocal lessons, or maybe they’ve spent years singing in front of their bedroom mirrors with a hairbrush for a microphone. Whatever their background, they pick songs that highlight their talents.
I have no vocal talents. My skills wouldn’t pass tumbling. I can only stay in tune if I am whisper-singing.
Yet, for some mind-boggling reason, I once thought it would be a good idea to sing Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” You read that right. I tried to take on the great human butterfly Mariah Carey and lost. Miserably. Because I’m not Mariah friggin’ Carey. I had no business being up there trying to do that song. Ever.
A couple of sorority girls in the corner were kind enough to cheer me on, but they knew and I knew that I wasn’t pulling it off. I just stopped singing, handed the DJ the microphone and walked off the stage.
You have to punch your weight. Know your vocal range. For me, that range is no range. Which is why I primarily stick to rap.
If you are going to rap, know the words.
I once boasted to a karaoke DJ that I could do “Regulate” by Warren G. He was excited and said he would do it with me since it’s a two-part song. I only knew 20 percent of the lyrics. Not even 20 percent. Mainly just the “Regulators….mount up!” part, which is at the very beginning. That DJ will no longer look me in the eye.
The song has to make my husband laugh.
My husband hates going to karaoke. He doesn’t sing, and honestly, karaoke is pretty boring to people who don’t really like to get up there and show off. Or who don’t like showtunes.
Fortunately for me, my husband loves ironically-sung power ballads like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and hip-hop songs done by dorky white ladies. I feel like it’s my duty to accommodate that. If I throw in a couple of kicky dance moves or some side banter I am his karaoke hero.
I got a little carried away with this notion, and recently chose the song “Copacabana” because I think the lyrics are hilarious. My husband does not. He actually yelled, “Come on! Really?” when I got up on stage. I forgot he does not share my affection for Barry Manilow.
I also forgot about the 72-measure musical interlude in the middle. That’s like a whole other song. There were a couple of drunk people who got up to do a little disco while I was “singing” it, but even they got bored and gave up on me in the middle.
Which leads me to my next rule…
Entertain the crowd
Since I cannot sing, the only thing I can really bring to the table (besides mid-level rap skills) is my stage presence (i.e. kicky dance moves and side banter).
I have narrowed my repetoire down to two, maybe three songs I can do solo with a fair amount of confidence: “You Oughtta Know,” “Ice, Ice Baby,” and (if I’ve had enough to drink) a mash-up of George Michael and Limp Bizkit’s versions of “Faith.”
I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of those songs over the years. But every once in a while, I long for something different. It’s like asking Prince to only perform “Purple Rain” and “When Doves Cry.” (Yes, I just compared myself to Prince.) I need to find my “Raspberry Beret.” But not actually “Raspberry Beret.” I can’t sing it.
From time to time, I indulge in little karaoke fantasies, like “What would it be like if each song I chose was a selection from the ‘Footloose’ soundtrack?” or “Maybe I should do Taco’s ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ and bring a top hat and cane.”
I seriously considered learning all the dance moves to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” but had to abandon the plan when I learned it involved the Roger Rabbit, a dance move I have never been able to master.
I needed something that would leave the crowd whispering, “Who’s that girl?” But what?
I’m not entirely sure how “Cherry Bomb” floated into my head, but once it was there, it felt like the karaoke gods had delivered it to me like a gift on a little golden pillow.
“Go forth,” they trumpeted from behind that gigantic karaoke system in the sky, “And bequeath unto our flock the blessed word of our sisters Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Lita Ford and the other two girls no one remembers. Praise be unto The Runaways!”
This was a song I could do! It met all my criteria! Cherie Currie didn’t so much sing “Hello, Daddy! Hello Mom!” as sneer it. I could sneer. My husband was a fan of the song, and it offered ample opportunity to ham it up on stage.
We were set to go to karaoke for a friend’s birthday, so I got to work practicing it. That’s right, I practiced it. I actually sat on my bed and sang my way through it like it was a totally serious thing. When my husband caught me, he said, “You’re thinking about this too hard.”
I wasn’t deterred because, in my head, I was already a legend. I was doing leg kicks, grinding my hips and spitting into the crowd. I was sassy and bold. I was a rock star.
Maybe it was all the practicing, but by the time it was my turn to get up and sing, the sass just leaked out of me.
I stood there gripping the microphone and staring at the teleprompter like an eighth-grader giving a speech for student council.
It was better than looking into the disinterested faces of my audience. They were either staring at me like I was a crazy person, staring down into the bottom of an empty beer glass, or ignoring me altogether. Not good.
I thought about throwing in a leg kick to grab their attention, but all I could will my body to do was a half-hearted pogo. I was bobbing up and down like I was singing “I’m a Little Teapot.”
I don’t think it would have mattered if I had set myself on fire while singing it. You see, the one big difference between me singing “Cherry Bomb” and Cherie Currie singing “Cherry Bomb” is that people wanted to hear her sing it. They paid to hear her sing it.
No one cared that I was singing it. They didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I don’t think anyone in that bar knew or cared who The Runaways were and I certainly wasn’t turning anyone on to their music.
When I sat down, one of my tablemates, who was clearly drunk, said, “That sounded like shit.”
So, there you have it… my iron-clad rules for karaoke success.
As you can see, I don’t always follow them. In fact, the whole story was about how I pretty much break them all. But that’s ok, right? It’s what rock stars are born to do.