I went to a graduation party in high school, and the hosts busted out the karaoke machine early. There was a lot of Britney Spears and a couple of ‘NSYNC standards. I thought I’d bring some class to the proceedings and queued up Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight.” Ten seconds in, it was over. Nobody left the room, nobody booed — just blank indifference from patrons. Everybody in the room, most of whom I didn’t know, mean mugged me while I poured my heart out to the girl in the front row I’d been crushin’ on.
Now I know where I went wrong.
The song was too slow for a room of folks I barely knew, entirely too earnest considering I didn’t write it, and my paralyzing fear that resulted from making a bad choice was all too noticeable.
When the song-selection connects, karaoke is awesome. Nothing beats overdoing it in front of complete strangers. But there are rules. There’s no expectation to hit every note or stay on pitch (and we all hate the assholes that come in with legitimate singing skills). But you are expected to show a modicum of sensible thinking in your decision on what to regale the audience with (songs that 65% of patrons are familiar with, no show tunes ever, age-appropriate nostalgia).
There are also forbidden songs, the ones that will make a crowd turn on you in a heartbeat and cry for your head on a stick. Stay away from these tunes, lest you be banned from your local karaoke watering hole and forever viewed as a lecherous troll incapable of basic human thought.
10. Justin Bieber classic
You can do Bieber’s heart hands until you’re blue in the face, but pair them with a song that isn’t his. If there are no JB fans in the audience, all you’ll do is confuse and anger the mob. If there are Beliebers present, they’ll see red because you cannot do justice to the songs of their idol. If you can hit the notes, you aren’t old enough to be in the bar. Feel free to ink yourself with a temporary tattoo of that sweet arm owl, though.
9. “Ave Maria”
I’ve seen this on more song lists that I thought was actually possible, and fortunately have only seen it attempted once. The results were horrendous. You are not Brennan Huff, your friend that yells “Boats and Hoes!” in the middle of your song will not get laughs, and it’s an operatic ballad, for God’s sake. Have a little respect for yourself and the legions of ear bleeds you’ll cause.
8. “Time of My Life”
Nope, not funny. Unless you are at a Sandals resort, then that shit’s on point, and should be the only thing you sing.
7. “Poker Face”
The song itself isn’t a bad choice, but I’m sorry, Eric Cartman made it impossible for anybody to do this justice. It’s the most recent example of Karaoke Ether: when scenes become more iconic than the recording, from “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” in “Top Gun” to “Closing Time” in the underrated and frankly adorable, “Friends With Benefits.” Just chalk this one up as a loss and respect Cartman’s authoritah.
6. Rap songs you only know the hooks to
Yeah, “Forever” is a great song, but there are four verses to that bad boy, and I’m almost certain you don’t know them all. Nothing brings down a crowd more than you belting out a great hook, firing everybody up, and then proceeding to mumble, Shy Ronnie-style, your way through a long flow. And no matter how doable it sounds on the radio, Eminem’s double time verse isn’t easy to mimic.
It’s fun to hate Chad Kroeger. “How You Remind Me” is deliciously bad, and it’s pretty easy to replicate Kroeger’s vocal style, provided you’re talented at sounding like you’re suffering from severe constipation. But don’t be tempted to take on a Nickelback song. It’s just too risky. Unless you’re in a rundown shack in the backwoods of the South, and even then you’re pushing your luck, the odds of you singing a Nickelback song and not being met with hostile derision are low, and trust me, you don’t want to be known internationally as Nickelback Rob. Your girlfriend singing Avril Lavigne is fine.
4. “Accidental Racist”
Just no. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, it doesn’t matter where you are, if this instant classic is on the song list, look right past it and keep going. And for that matter, any song with lyrics on par with “If you don’t judge my gold chains/ I’ll forget the iron chains” should probably not be in your repertoire.
3. “Welcome to the Machine”
I saw this happen in a bar in Port Aransas, TX, and it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life. Pink Floyd is a fantastic band, and you should listen to them at every opportunity, but don’t put a karaoke audience through your slow-burning rendition of a prog rock staple. Not only is “Machine” entirely too mellow for the atmosphere of a karaoke bar, there won’t be a single person who appreciates you taking up seven and a half minutes of stage time for a song that doesn’t even contain much singing. After “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s slim pickins’ for longer-than-six-minute epics.
2. “Bump N’ Grind”
There are sexual songs that endear you to the crowd, and then there are those that make you seem like a deviant. R. Kelly’s saga about the battle between his body and his mind definitely falls into the latter category. Two things happen every time: you either tame the explicit sexuality of the tune and half-ass a performance with no real feeling, or you give in to the graphic nature of the song and undoubtedly make the poor decision to lace your performance with hip thrusts, floor humps, and an abundance of duck face. “Bump N’ Grind” might get you laid, but it probably won’t.
1. “Final Countdown”
You are probably not Gob Bluth. You don’t ride a Segway and you don’t perform mediocre magic. If you do, you should probably reconsider the choices you’ve made in your life up to this point. Europe is an easy target for VH1’s “Worst Songs of All Time” and “Best Week Ever” and the other bottom tier comic-driven programs they give to the world, but you’re better than that. There’s a whole book of songs just waiting for new life. Sure, “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “No Diggity” have also been done to death. They are incredible and this is ironic.