Let's face it: my current unbridled enthusiasm for karaoke singing puzzles even me. I've long since passed my choirgirl years, and anyway in choir one voice is rarely distinguished. Mine certainly never was. The times that saw me singing solo in the past were few and far between (a gay bar in Pasco, Washington, the erstwhile Liquid Lounge at the EMP in Seattle) and while I had enjoyed it, the wait-to-sing ratio was fairly high, and to have that many people watch you singing alone on your first few forays brings out the old nerves like nothing else I know. And nerves + singing = crap.
Part of it does seem to be slightly competitive -- given a mic and a screen with the lyrics, how close can your voice get to Janis Joplin's? At the same time, hey, nobody seriously expects me to be Janis Joplin -- it's karaoke, for crying out loud. Mere adequacy is considered overachieving.
Maybe that's the appeal: high potential for success with no penalty for being second- or even third-rate. That's the same reason I played on the drama department's intramural softball team three years running in college: we were so collectively bad that no one single individual could possibly be charged with ruining it for everybody, no matter how poorly one played. Every dropped fly and bobbled grounder was par for the course, while every caught ball and solid hit was cause for celebration.
Also, games with the Screaming Makitas (namesake rusty backstage electric drills which we used to build and strike sets) and karaoke can both be enjoyed while drinking -- the softball team's best and most practiced move was as follows:
1. Catch ball in left-hand mitt
3. Place beer on ground with right hand
4. Emerge from crouch while pulling ball from left-hand mitt with right hand
5. Throw ball
When thoroughly practiced -- and we did drill this one -- this smooth maneuver was almost poetic in its graceful debauchery. Had Roman emperors played softball, this would have been in their playbook. Other intramural teams, though their score might double ours, were reluctantly impressed.
For the record, unlike softball, karaoke comes pretty naturally to me: I have a decent enough voice, and usually the wisdom not to afflict my audience with either lengthy, dull songs (I'm talking to you, Pink Floyd) or awkward, annoying ones (performing "Summer Lovin'" is, I believe, grounds for execution). But then, the hardest part of karaoke isn't the singing. That's just the most noticeable bit. Actually, the hardest part is the song choice. Not only range, vocal quality, volume, and mood must be considered: you also have a responsibility to your audience, to pick something with at least a minimal entertainment value for the listener who could care less who you are or where you trained or how much you've had to drink. Because this is not your insulated single-occupant bathroom shower on a late-slept Sunday morning: this is a bar with other people who came out to entertain and be entertained, and if you don't respect that it tends to show. Like the guy who thought it would be a good idea to knock back twenty Irish car bombs and then sing "Baby Got Back" despite never having learned all the words. Sir, you are a douchebag of the highest caliber, and if ever given the opportunity I will exchange all the whiskey in those car bombs for tequila, and then we'll see how you feel come morning. That pounding in your temples and the fuzziness on your tongue? It's called regret.
Karaoke tends to toy with the notion of celebrity. An example: Cher's "Believe" an artfully digitized product of one of those famous people with whom society has something of a love-hate relationship. We mock her, but we know her name. And when someone who looks kind of like Cher sings a terrible, catchy as hell song by Cher to which everyone has a reaction, be it affection or loathing -- well, there aren't many who can't get behind that at least a little bit. Think about it: you see the song choice on the monitor is "In the Ghetto." Wouldn't you prefer that guy with the wavy black hair sneering into his sideburns than the guy in the t-shirt with cutoff sleeves, his blond hair spiky and bleached to within an inch of its life? Wouldn't you rather that second guy sing "White Wedding" instead? Believe me, I've seen a Billy Idol lookalike sing Billy Idol, and it's a pleasure everyone should have at least once in their lifetime. It means that right there in front of you is a person who at least has a vague, instinctive handle on relationship between actuality and appearances.
Then again, having that Billy Idol lookalike sing "Hound Dog" or "Heartbreak Hotel" would be pretty good, too. There's always something to be said for playing with expectations. A good song choice is nearly always a good song choice regardless of the vocalist.
Singing a song that's as famous for the performer as for the performance also strangely reclaims popular music for the masses. Take that, Bon Jovi, it's our song now! And good karaoke songs almost have to be from the genre of popular (or at least semipopular) music. A song only you know is usually dull as dirt for anyone else to listen to, unless you're the absolute be-all and end-all, vocally. And even then, no guarantees.
It's an added complexity that a good song is not necessarily a good karaoke song, and vice versa. Examples of good songs that are terrible karaoke songs: "Orange Blossom Special" (all those musical breaks!), "Baba O'Reilly" (same), and just about every rap song ever recorded. (Because even when people think they know how it goes, they rarely do.) Examples of terrible songs that are good karaoke songs: "Believe," "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)," and anything by Wilson Phillips. Examples that fit both circles of our Venn diagram: "Son of a Preacher Man," "London Calling," "I Will Survive," "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," "The Gambler," "Space Oddity," and "Fat Bottomed Girls." But by far the title for Best Karaoke Song in America today is split between two contenders: "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "Don't Stop Believin.'" Not only are these songs common in karaoke books, well-known, catchy, nostalgic, and easy to sing -- they are top karaoke songs because everybody on earth will sing along with either one. The entire bar. No matter if they're drunk or sober or tired or grumpy or whether they intend to get up onstage themselves. It's an amazing experience of unity and cohesion, small groups of total strangers coming together briefly for a common, albeit ridiculous, purpose.
Anyone who's a karaoke regular inevitably develops a signature song or two. My friend Colin has "Sweet Caroline" down to an art form, and Binah can lock down "Brian Wilson" and "Walking in Memphis" with the best of them. In the past I have tended to default to "Bobbie McGee" because it's a showstopper and singing it as loud and as well as I can is something of a rush, provided I've had at least one good solid drink (even Janis couldn't sing Janis sober). Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why" has been getting a lot of play as well, because it is a song with the perfect ratio of effort (zero) to quality (lots). However, my current fanaticism for the karaoke art has led me more and more into new and uncharted territory. I tire of singing the same old things; instead, I have been branching out into songs that make me nervous (Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas") or which I love but am not sure I can sing (Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You", "If You've Got It, Flaunt It" from the Producers) or which I've had to badger the host to get into the book (Indigo Girls' "Galileo") or which I've just plain never seen anywhere before ("Mr. Cellophane"). Not all of these have been wild, runaway successes, but the risks have paid off enough to keep me trying.
The signature song and/or repertoire is not necessarily a motto, but they do tend to indicate certain things about a personality that might otherwise be unutterable. For instance, the list of songs I've heard Colin do more than once: "Wicked Game," "Sweet Caroline," "Mmm Mmm Mmm," "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon," and "Melt With You." Binah: "Brian Wilson," "Faith," "Walking in Memphis." Teman: "Sympathy With the Devil," "The Gambler," and "London Calling." Charles: "Benny and the Jets," "Sledgehammer," "Kissing a Fool," "Mama," and "Believe." Me: "Son of a Preacher Man," "Galileo," "Bobby McGee," "Don't Know Why," "Long As I Can See the Light," and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" Themes develop with alarming rapidity, and one's musical knowledge and tastes are exposed to other regulars, who may or may not feel compelled to judge you on that basis.
If a regular patron at a karaoke bar has a regular song they perform, the other regulars almost entirely -- in, say, roughly 99% of cases -- will deliberately not sing that song (though exceptions can be made in the case of a regular's absence, or in a pair of regulars who trade turns on a particular song). It's considered poaching, and poaching of course is considered bad form. It doesn't matter if you do it better; it doesn't matter if you do it worse. It is simply not done.
At least, it's not done by those in the know. The quickest way for a regular to find out that another singer is a newbie is to hear them poach a regular's standard tune. I recall one time at an erstwhile karaoke night I heard some tone-deaf drunk guys -- and oh, the bane that is the tone-deaf drunk guy with poor song choice capabilities -- poach David Allan Coe's "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," usually performed late in the evening by a regular known affectionately as Big Al. Now, for one thing, Big Al sings this song beautifully, in a rich full velvet voice. For another, I'd never heard it until I started coming to karaoke, but thanks to Big Al it is now one of my favorite songs, one which causes everyone else in the bar to sing along. There are backup lyrics and everything. So to have this newbie, this rube, this asshole, show up and crap all over one of my favorite karaoke numbers in the most egregiously unentertaining way possible ... Well, it gets my dander up.
But now, I have to go sing. Further bulletins as events warrant.