Nothing tanks a karaoke night quicker than some buzzkill plodding through a painful snoozefest of a ballad. It’s as simple as this: Can you sing? Like really, really well? Will you give us actual goosebumps? If the answer is anything but “Of course I will; in fact, I am offended you even asked,” then do not sing a ballad. You will bore everyone and embarrass yourself.
With the rare exception of gravely voiced former strip club DJs, karaoke jockeys don’t do this for a living. They're usually creative types who want to pay the bills while still maintaining a flexible schedule. You should tip them at least a dollar for every song you put in. Have a big birthday party and want to get all your friends onstage? Give the KJ a twenty with your first song and explain your situation. Don’t think it’s necessary to tip? Well, how much would it take for you to spend six hours in a bar enduring forty people singing that Journey song and angrily yelling at you about why they can’t sing that Journey song again? Divide your answer by 100 and that’s the most any KJ will ever make. And, speaking of that Journey song…
Steve Perry can’t even sing Steve Perry songs anymore, so what makes you think you can? It’s officially time to stop believing. Singing this song at karaoke is boring, uninspired and downright annoying. Here are some other songs you shouldn’t ever sing because everyone else does and it’s lame: "Total Eclipse of the Heart" (Old School came out eleven years ago, quit it), "Sweet Caroline" (bum bum bummer), "Bohemian Rhapsody" (WHY are you trying to go toe-to-toe with Freddie Mercury?), most Bon Jovi (unless you are trying to sleep with/are someone in a leopard-print cowboy hat, which would be questionable anyway). There are several other songs you shouldn’t sing, though they aren’t as face-smashingly bad as these. Oh yeah, and one entire genre…
I don’t care what color your skin is—you probably can’t rap. You wouldn’t go to karaoke to do stand-up comedy, right? That would actually be easier than karaoke rapping, since there’s not as much rhythm involved. It is demonstrably harder to remember where and when to say the words in a rap song than it is in any other kind of song—and forget about “using the screen” to get a clue. Those words will be flying by faster than your confidence if you decide to rap at karaoke.
Look, I understand that we’re all having fun. I’m not the karaoke police—they don't exist. You don’t have to be a good singer in order to be good at karaoke. In fact, some of the best people I’ve ever seen perform are terrible singers. However, those terrible singers at least knew what the hell was about to come out of their mouths (or go into their mouths—I once saw a crazy guy play a homemade flute during “Spill the Wine” and it was the best I’ve felt since my bar mitzvah). Before you pick a song, ask yourself, “Do I know any words that aren’t the chorus?” The best songs are ones that you often sing in your car or shower; ones that you love and really, truly know by heart.
It’s an old Broadway trick: If you’re going to fail, fail HUGE. There is a certain type of cringe you feel when you watch a tiny little mouse get onstage and squeak out some Fleetwood Mac song, like they're being forced to do it at gunpoint. A bad singer having fun is a million times more entertaining than some Amélie mumbling Patsy Cline three feet away from the mic. Don't be Diane Keaton at the beginning of Annie Hall, be Diane Keaton in The First Wives Club.
I get it. It’s LA. We all moved here because we know that we are destined for fame and fortune due to our immense talent. Sometimes (read: literally all of the time) it doesn’t work out, and we find ourselves scrambling for every available moment in that sweet, sweet spotlight. Karaoke is not that spotlight. This isn’t an audition for X Factor, it’s a goddamned bar, and some Johnny Lunchpail who just worked his tail off as a freelance Guy Who Drives Products to Rich People needs to blow off some steam by singing The Boss, thank you.
Who are you, Chris Rock over here? A well deserved mic drop is the loudest exclamation point a human being can scientifically make, and unfortunately nothing you ever do at karaoke will deserve one. Even if you sang the best version of whatever song you chose, you’re still not in the band. No one paid to see you. You’re not at the goddamned Apollo, so show some respect. Also, it’s usually the perpetually broke KJ who paid for that mic, so don’t be a dick and break it because you were halfway decent at singing Sublime.
I do stand-up comedy. I still go to open mics, and if I was a dick to every comic who had a bad set, I’d be a dick to 100 percent of comedians, including myself. Yet, I am still a human; I love judging people and talkin’ shit. To deal with this conundrum, I’ve devised a simple system: only hate on someone if they’re bad and mean. This also applies to karaoke. It’s fun being Statler and Waldorf, but not if you’re gonna ruin some nice person’s night. Street justice is great, just make absolutely sure your target deserves it.
I know I just wrote nine rules detailing the do's and do-not-do’s of karaoke. If you follow them all, you will be a superstar and achieve the maximum amount of fun at karaoke. But, at the end of the damn day, it’s just another Japanese-invented distraction. Have fun, don’t be a dick, and remember to tip your KJ and lovely bar staff. Especially Bob at the Bigfoot Lodge—that dude has to suffer through my bullshit every Monday night.