In another life, I am a good singer. I wear a sparkly cocktail dress, weave my way through the tables up to the stage in the smoky nightclub, squint into the spotlight, and launch into a performance that would make Babs Streisand, Judy Garland, Lindsey Buckingham, or maybe, just maybe, Janet Jackson, cry.
In real life, I can sort of carry a tune and love lots of kinds of music, the perfect combination to become a karaoke singer.
When my husband and I first dated, we ended up at a local pub’s karaoke night. It was a full house on a Saturday, and as a dare, we each picked a song to sing. While waiting our turn, we heard some folks who should have cut a record, and some who patterned themselves after the sound of dying whales.
At the pub’s long tables, we made friends with some of the regulars. Jodi, new to the area from California, had sung on public access TV. She gave free advice to those who returned from the stage to their seats.
“Next time stand up a little straighter to lengthen your diaphragm,” she told Tony. “You will get more volume and be able to hit the high notes.” He bought her a tequila shot in gratitude, but she refused it as she had heard alcohol damaged vocal chords.
We met a singer whom we later found out was 90% deaf, yet who sang the most beautiful version of “Make the World Go Away” we had ever heard.
I had almost had enough to drink to start re-thinking my song entry that night when they called my name. I made it through a pretty wicked version of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” channeling Gladys, minus the Pips. The crowd clapped politely.
A couple of songs later my brave date sang Hank William’s “Family Tradition,” and the crowd went wild. I felt a surge of pride that this was my fella, and he could actually sing.
We enjoyed a few more rounds- both of singers and of drinks- and were winding down when Betty, the pub’s aging and only waitress, dropped a yellow ticket in front of my date. “Congrats! You are in the finals,” she said.
Unbeknownst to us, we had joined in the fun on karaoke contest night. Truthfully kind of disappointed I was un-ticketed, I looked up into the eyes of a true competitor, who had already opened the massive song list book, and was busy selecting his next number.
While there is some debate these many years later between my now husband and me about the amount of the prize awarded that night, suffice it to say, he made Bobby Darrin proud with a version of “Mack the Knife” that won the big cash prize.
This was before the proverbial mic drop became popular, but it was a pretty good moment. A man who can earn a check during the week and pick up a little extra moola singing on weekends? Sign me up. He believes his boyish charm won me over. Actually, I had always wanted to marry a performer.
We spent a few (read many) nights at the pub, making more karaoke friends and introducing some of our friends to it. Along the way we learned so much about the fine art of karaoke. Here are ten things you should know, too.
First, applaud no matter the quality of the performance. You may be applauding for the courage of the person who put it all out there, possibly for the fact the song is finally over, and because it really is just for fun. And most importantly, if you stink when it is your turn to sing, they will also clap for you.
Second, some folks take their karaoke very seriously. If they change outfits any time during the night for different songs, forget about beating them in the weekly contest. Karaoke joints are not the place to get discovered, but believe me, some warblers think they are.
Third, don’t karaoke if you cannot read. The words literally light up in front of you, and all you have to do is follow them. If the crowd helps you or the K-J steps in, you are sunk. Hooked on phonics for you, friend.
Fourth, maybe it actually is time to stop believing. That Journey song is a huge karaoke foul in most places. If you hear an audible groan when your title comes up, you have a strike against you before your opening note.
Other ones you might want to put on the back burner are Adele’s “Hello” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” It is possibly time for a B52’s “Love Shack” return, but first check the crowd for dark glasses, go-go boots, and beehive hairdos to see if you will have any fans.
Fifth, most people cannot rap, and that includes you. A particularly saucy rendition of Baby Got Back might be a good substitute for the Eminem song you wanted to sing, but leave beat boxing and Tupac at home.
Sixth, the 4th week in April is National Karaoke week. I think that should tell you about its importance. It has its own week for crying out loud!
Seventh, the best duet for a man and woman is “I Got You Babe” ala Sonny and Cher, because they weren’t really in tune when they sang it, so it seems okay if you aren’t either. Dolly Parton and George Jones’ “Rockin’ Years” is a good one, too, if the crowd likes country. Leave anything from Lionel Richie or Peaches and Herb alone, dang it. You will never sound that good.
Eighth, “Paradise By the Dashboard Lights” is too long, as is “American Pie,” but if the crowd likes to get involved, these are sure ways to win them over. If you do launch into a sing along number, don’t be surprised if some overly-enthusiastic new friend joins you on stage or if you end up with back up dancers. It’s all a part of the karaoke game.
Ninth, deliberately performing another singer’s signature song is considered bad form. At our old place, Tammy and Jake had cornered the market on most of the duets. That was okay with us, as we both envision ourselves as primarily solo acts. But we witnessed a near thrown down the night Sheila sang Celine Dion ‘s “The Heart Will Go On,” when everyone knew it was Debbie’s territory. Shameless!
Tenth, if you can get dancers on the floor during your song, you have made it big time. We noticed that the contest winners almost always had dancers. As my friend would say about the good singers, “They sound so much like the record!”
I have to admit that our buddy’s version of “Living on Tulsa Time” and his rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues,” which both got multiple dancers last time he sang them, have tested the theory a bit. But put on your falsetto vest and break out a Whitney Houston number like “I Will Always Love You” or a Bee Gees “How Deep Is Your Love,” and the slow-dancers come out of the woodwork.
When the pub closed (read: was condemned), we were sad, and we never found another just right place to recreate those fun days. We missed Jodi’s advice and Ray the K-J’s announcing skills.
We saw Tammy and Jake at a table near ours when we were eating out one night years later. In the flickering Olive Garden candlelight, they looked just like your next door neighbors. But we remembered their power when they held those karaoke mics.
If you hummed, ran the lyrics through your mind, or sang aloud to any of the songs I mentioned, you likely have the karaoke bug. If you weren’t moved by any of my suggestions, but have your own personal favorite in mind, you have surely been bitten.
Call us if you are out and about some night for karaoke. We might just come by and dance to one of your numbers.
Cathy is a retired public school English teacher and Public Information Officer.