How Not To Be a Dick At Karaoke

I'm probably going to make some enemies with this, but I am wholeheartedly against the singing of "Don't Stop Believing" at karaoke nights.
Publish date:
November 9, 2015
bars, music, etiquette, how not to be a dick, entertainment, singing, karaoke

Like Marci, I've always dabbled in singing as a hobby. I have been singing in church since I was old enough to memorize a line in the weird church musicals we put on every year.

I recently had a recovered memory of being in one called, I kid you not, "God Uses Kids!" With the exclamation point. My big line was "Going to church make doesn't make you a Christian, any more than being in a garage makes you a car!" See terrifying clip from somebody's production of "God Uses Kids!" below. Yes, the main character was a giant anthropomorphic computer wearing a baseball cap.

Check out the awesome teapot dance action at around a minute in, though.

As an adult, I got involved in my neighborhood by singing with the Brooklyn Community Chorus, which led to my membership in an all-girl barbershop quartet called The Beauty Shop Quartet.

I sang tenor in the quartet, which means I got to do a lot of sound effects and nonsense words ala the "bum bum bum bum"s in "Mr. Sandman." Post-parenthood, I didn't have time for all the rehearsals anymore, but I always hoped to go back someday.

In the meantime, I've always been a casual enjoyer of karaoke, especially when I used to drink to excess. I have an especially cringe-y memory of trying to do a cool jump off the stage in the middle of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You," only to wipe out hard in front of everyone. Then of course I had to pretend like everything was cool and jump up all victorious like Kerri Strug after that ankle sprain.

I'm not sure if that's more or less embarrassing than the fact that my best friend and I used to rent one of those by-the-hour karaoke rooms so we could relive our adolescence by singing the entire RENT soundtrack.

But it wasn't until I started dating someone who is freakishly obsessed with karaoke (like, carries a crumpled list of potential songs with him at all times) that it became a fairly regular part of my life. Turns out it's great for sobers too, since it's something to do in a bar besides shots of Jaeger.

I've done more karaoke in the last year of my life then in all the years before that combined.

On our second date, Deer Hoof took me to an amazing hole-in-the-wall karaoke night where I first saw a regular named Agent J, who hits the circuit dressed as one of the agents from Men in Black. He also carries a briefcase that holds a DVD player on which he watches the movie while waiting for his turn to sing the Men in Black theme song, complete with choreographed dance moves that the other regulars have seen enough times to act as his backup dancers. (He even carries dark shades for those who inevitably join in.)

At first, I found Deer Hoof's intense passion for karaoke to be a little silly or dorky, but over our year together, I've come to see the appeal. Done right, karaoke can be a magical experience that brings people together on a level beyond your typical drunken bar night. A good karaoke night is a place where freaks can be stars, where the worst singer might get the most applause. Most of all, karaoke is amazing people-watching, especially if you like watching people get drunk and slowly expose their insecurities and eccentricities. I mean, I've seen people play air every-kind-of-instrument.

And if your date looks right at you while belting out Prince's "Little Red Corvette," karaoke might even help you fall in love.

Here are some tips for how to be respectful and make the karaoke night fun for everyone.

Give the singer some space.

I went out singing on Halloween and at some point during the night, a couple of drunken Mets fans, a man and a woman, stumbled into the bar and started immediately dancing directly in front of the singer. Like, practically touching her.

At this karaoke night, like many, there wasn't an actual stage, just a corner of the bar designated for the singer. But the person with the mic was still performing; please give the singer a 2-foot bubble in which to enjoy the temporary spotlight, and never walk or stand right in front of them.

Later on, I was trying to take a picture of a friend completely killing it singing Jump In the Line in costume, and this same couple kept jumping in front of my camera and posing like I was trying to take a picture of them.

This actually resulted in way better pictures than the ones I was trying to take. I wish I could morally justify posting pictures of drunken strangers here so you could all enjoy them as well.

Pay attention to the performer/Clap for everybody.

Standing up and singing in front of a group of strangers is a pretty vulnerable activity. Nothing feels more shitty and mortifying than when you're pouring your soul into something off of "Pieces of You" and people are just having their own conversations like they don't even notice you up there. These foolish games are tearing me apart, you guys.

Even worse? Shuffling awkwardly back to your seat in dead silence. Please, please, just clap for everybody. The worse the performance, the more they need/deserve the cheers.

Conversely, I've never seen anyone do this, but I asked my KJ friend for some dos and don'ts and she said, "Don't boo or shame anyone. That's a quick way to show the world that you're an entitled jerk and make everybody hate you."

Wait your turn.

More wisdom from the aforementioned KJ friend: "Hovering over a KJ and pestering them about when you are going is just going to make them want to bump you to the bottom of the list for being annoying."

Also, don't turn in like 5 songs at once. Generally accepted karaoke etiquette is to wait until after singing your first song to turn in a second, as least when there's a fair-sized crowd waiting to sing.

It's not a competition.

Marci says: "One time, there was a woman who clearly wanted to be considered The Best Singer In The Bar, and every time I would sing, she’d pay the extra $5 to have her next song played right after mine. Trust me, it wasn’t a coincidence that she kept going directly after me; the screen shows who the next three people are, and her name would suddenly show up and bump down the next people listed.

In other words, don’t treat karaoke as a competition. It makes you look insecure even if you’re a great singer (and she was)."

Karaoke is supposed to be fun, not cutthroat. I'd rather see an enthusiastic tone-deaf singer having a great time than a ringer trying to prove something with Alicia Keys any day.

Don't jump in on someone else's song.

I have actually seen this happen several times: Somehow someone magically produces a second mic or just runs up and starts singing back-up without being invited. Sure, karaoke may eventually turn into a drunken sing-a-long, but don't actually hijack someone else's performance by joining them without permission.

On the flip side, if you're the one with the mic, don't try to make reluctant people sing with you by begging or just forcing a mic into their hands. And definitely don't stick a mic in someone's face to make them sing the chorus if they don't want to. Karaoke should be voluntary.

Do stop believing.

I'm probably going to make some enemies with this, but I am wholeheartedly against the singing of "Don't Stop Believing" at karaoke nights. It's just done. It's over; I have stopped believing.

That said, you should ultimately sing whatever makes you happy. I have my own fantasies of crashing a karaoke night and just trolling everyone by only singing only children's songs or TV themes or obscure songs from "Fiddler on the Roof." (I can make myself laugh for hours imagining what the weirdest songs to sing at karaoke would be.)

But if you are going to sing from the Journey canon, or sing "You Give Love a Bad Name" or "Total Eclipse of the Heart" or "Sweet Caroline" to make everybody go "bum bum BUM!", I recommend saving it for after 2 a.m. when everybody's wasted. Hitting the big drunken crowd-pleasers at 7 p.m. just feels wrong. TOO SOON.

Don't sing super-long songs.

Speaking of which, my KJ friends recommends that you "don't sing anything over five minutes long. This includes Total Eclipse of the Heart, What's Up, and Bohemian Rhapsody." I don't know if I can do Total Eclipse of the Heart like that (those thunder crashes!), but I agree with generally not hogging for the mic for 10 minutes at a time.

Although one of the most amazing (in a "Is this really happening way?) karaoke performances I've ever seen was a performance of Laurie Anderson's Mother shortly after Lou Reed's death, which is not only a super-weird experimental, half-spoken song, but which clocks in at 8:21.


Now that I do karaoke a lot more frequently, I've had to vastly build up my repertoire. I used to have a handful of songs I'd sing when I sang two or three times a year ("Stay" by Lisa Loeb, "Kiss Me Deadly," by Lita Ford), now I have my own lengthy list on my iPhone.

To get out of our comfort zones and find new songs to sing, sometimes Deer Hoof and I play weird games where we challenge each other to pick songs from random categories like "Songs About Mamas" (Him: "Coat of Many Colors," Me: "Mother Mother") or "Songs Sung By Someone From a Foreign Country."

The latter is how I ended up singing Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" in public last week, which is a totally awesome song when Bjork sings it, but a totally bizarre song when a random mediocre singer is screaming "WOW BAM!" at an indifferent Monday night karaoke room.

But even when singing something weird or embarrassing or realizing halfway through that I really don't know the song as well as I thought I did, I try to commit to my performance. And it's definitely not cool to bail on a song midway through.

I've only ever give up on a song once, and that was at a private party when I thought for some reason that I could sing Magic Man. Heart ain't no joke, you guys.

If you're going to do a group song, make sure somebody actually wants to sing the song.

Nothing worse than a bunch of people standing around a mic mumbling and trying to push the mic into somebody else's hand because they agreed collectively to sign up for a song nobody individually really wanted to sing.

Don't deliberately steal someone else's regular song.

Aw, come on, you KNEW that was Felicia's Wednesday night jam!

Feel the room.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all about being true to your karaoke soul, and sometimes I just want to sing Shania Twain or The Dixie Chicks when everybody else is singing hip-hop, but it is a good idea to at least take the temperature of the room while selecting your song.

Are you gonna kill the mood with your depressing-ass slow jam when everybody else is trying to get their party on? That's what private rooms are for. Well, that and making out.

Don't use the N word if you're white.

I can't tell you how many white people I have seen just go right ahead and say/sing the N-word while doing karaoke. No, it is NOT OK just because it's in the song. Just don't do it. (I came back and added this one in because it's that important.)

And, finally, a self-serving but valid tip from my same KJ friend:

Tip your KJ.

They're probably not making that much money, and people who throw a few bucks into the tip jar always get moved up the queue.

Are you still believing? What's the most amazing karaoke performance you've ever seen? What is the weirdest, most confusing song I could sing at a karaoke night with a straight face and make everyone uncomfortable?