What’s your go-to karaoke song? Or if you don’t have one, what song do you wish you could sing at karaoke if it was available or if you had the nerve?
“Son Of A Preacher Man” was my go-to for a long time, by virtue of it being in my vocal range no matter how drunk I got. But then a memorably excruciating performance of the song by Jan on The Office imbued that one with some unappealing baggage. So I’ve transitioned over to Ace Of Base’s “All That She Wants,” which is both recognizable and dumb enough to always get a good reaction from the audience—and again, easy enough to sing no matter how many drinks I have in me. That song reliably appears on pretty much every karaoke-song list, but there are some other deeper cuts I’ll jump on if I see them in the book: Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good,” Merle Haggard’s “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am,” Elton John’s “Take Me To The Pilot,” and possibly my favorite karaoke song of all time, “Under The Sea,” which will always, always result in a bar-wide sing-along, but is much harder to keep up with than you probably remember. (Go ahead, try it: “The newt play the flute, the carp play the harp, the plaice play the bass…”) And while I’m always happy to jump in on a group sing, I’ve never found anyone willing to join me in my two dream karaoke duets, Conway and Loretta’s “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” and Little Big Town’s “Boondocks,” whose closing vocal breakdown would definitely take some practice, but would be totally worth it. I’m taking applications now.
There was a time when I thought I would never, ever have the nerve to get up in front of my friends, let alone a bar, and sing karaoke. (That time, by the way, began at the exact moment I was forced to endure a former boss singing the entirety of Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” with one of my female coworkers taking on the Ellen Foley parts.) But the older I get and the more I learn to appreciate bourbon, the more likely it seems to me that someday, without any real preparation beyond the tossing back of several drinks, I may finally accept the challenge and take the mic. When that day comes, though, it’s a pretty fair bet that the song I choose will be something by Johnny Cash, and it’ll almost certainly be something from the American Recordings era, so my vocals can be as low and gravelly as I damned well please. The big question, though, is whether there’s a karaoke machine out there that features “Delia’s Gone” or “The Beast In Me.” No hurry to find one, though. I mean, I’ve waited this long…
You can never go wrong with country songs for karaoke. They’re fun, they’re infectious, they oftentimes involve the deplorable practice of drinking alcohol, and you can generally sing them very loud and very off-key with your friends without anyone objecting too strenuously. There’s a reason Garth Brooks’ “I’ve Got Friends In Low Places” is a karaoke staple; I am also partial to George Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning.” The classic tune about the loneliness of the migratory rodeo rider is a little more melancholy than most karaoke fare, but I can never resist its siren song nevertheless.
I’m always jealous when I hear about other people going out and karaoke-ing it up. I love to sing badly, typically in the car or in the kitchen, and I have a secret theatrical side. Sadly, though, no one in my immediate circle of friends is a big enough karaoke person for me to tag along on one of their outings, and I’m too intimidated to coordinate my own karaoke meet-up, in case everyone hates it. So long story short, if you’re going to have an awesome karaoke party, invite ol’ Zulkey here. I know I can sing the Turtles’ “Happy Together” pretty well, which was the first song I ever sang at karaoke. My husband and I were in a karaoke bar on Catalina Island and I just got up and decided to do it, even though I didn’t have a big crowd of friends supporting me. It went over well: It’s a low-risk song. My worst karaoke experience, though, was covering Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” which I discovered too late is about a half-octave too high for me. Worse, I performed it at a friend’s book launch at Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago where a) there were about 10 people in attendance, b) no one was drunk, and c) It was still light out. So there was nowhere for me to hide, and I had to cling to the hope that eventually the song would end, or I would die of embarrassment first.
Aside from one aborted attempt on a friend’s machine in his living room, I’ve never sung karaoke. Don’t ask me; I like the whole concept of karaoke, and I thoroughly enjoy watching other people do it. (Especially the sucky people.) If there isn’t an audience around, trust me, I’m screeching along at the top of my lungs to every other song on the radio. However: I’ve played music for about 20 years, and no matter what kind of band I’m in, I always love doing covers. The thing is, I rarely sing in my bands, so most of the time, I’m just jumping around and playing guitar. There are exceptions, though. For instance, I spent a few lost years in the late ’90s and early ’00s taking a stab at being a solo, acoustic singer-songwriter. Sucking hampered me a bit. But one thing was totally fun about going solo: I could play (and sing!) whatever covers I wanted, whenever I wanted. And those covers ran the gamut: Everything from The Byrds to Jawbreaker to Sly And The Family Stone got slaughtered by my tonsils during those years. I was actually relatively good at one song, though, so I wound up singing it a lot: “Face Up” by New Order. An unjustly overlooked deep cut from the band’s 1985 album Low-Life, “Face Up” is a sparkling, timeless pop anthem about mismatched, fucked-up love. It also contains only three chords—and it’s sung by Bernard Sumner, which means you don’t need any kind of real vocal prowess to do it justice. In other words, it was perfect for me, and it’s the closest thing to a “favorite karaoke song” I’ll probably ever get.
Yeah, I’m pretty obsessed with karaoke (to the point where some friends and I are launching a combo comedy/karaoke show in Brooklyn this August called The Jukebox). I’ve sung a lot of songs, seen a lot of pitfalls—like choosing something with too long an instrumental break—and noticed the types of songs that seem to be the most popular. I can safely say, after it all, that karaoke is more based on effort than anything else, including singing ability. People want to see you put on a mini-show, not audition for American Idol. That said, if I’m completely unsure of what to sing, I come back to Boz Scaggs’ “Lido Shuffle” every time. First of all, I know the song very well, so I can effort the shit out of it. Secondly, not a lot of other people know it—or perhaps they’ve forgotten about it. And the pleasant reminder serves to make the song that much more fun to sing. Plus, there’s nothing not to like about the mini-wailing session at the beginning of every chorus: “Lido / Oh oh ooooooh oooooooooooooooooooh.” It’s infectious and easy to sing along to, and once the crowd’s joining in, you know you’ve picked the right karaoke song.
True stories from a very dorky early adolescence: When I was 13, I forced my poor elderly grandmother to endure my complete rendition of Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain”—as performed via precision lip-syncing and inflatable guitars I took home from bar mitzvahs—on an almost-daily basis. That same summer of ’92, my aunt was watching me one afternoon while my mother was at work and caught me frantically sprinting back and forth across my twin bed, trusty inflatable axe in hand, shadowing Axl Rose’s every move throughout the “Live And Let Die” video. One more absolutely authentic tale: Eight years ago, while I was doing karaoke at a bar to Ugly Kid Joe’s “Everything About You,” a heckler shouted, “Get off the stage, you pussy!” I have never forgotten that. Which is why, when I work up the courage, I am going to return triumphantly to that very stage, resurrect the spirit of my teenage inner Axl, and blow some minds with a pitch-perfect run-through of GN’R’s transcendent ballad “Don’t Cry.” By the time I breathlessly incant its ascending “Baby, maybe someday” bridge and drop the microphone like I’m outtie after the climax’s extended quiver, the art of recreational vocal dubbing will be at least moderately shifted from where it was five minutes prior. Grandma would be proud.
My first and only best-man speech sucked royally. Through the potent combination of not being especially prepared and public speaking making my throat close up, I bombed. Fortunately, the karaoke session the happy couple scheduled for later at the reception offered me a tremendous chance for redemption via Dio’s “Holy Diver.” I jumped on Ronnie James Dio’s hellish bandwagon after the home-schooling episode of South Park, and soon after made “Holy Diver” my signature karaoke song. To this day, it still sounds good in my head when I subject people to my rendition. But it wasn’t until that wedding performance that I realized the extended, howling wind intro served as a perfect backdrop for ad-libbing anything from free-form poetry to Dio eulogies to impromptu best-man speeches. It turns out harnessing Ronnie James’ power of the dark arts can not only make a shitty singer feel like the karaoke master of their dreams, but it can also make addressing a crowded room seem much less terrifying.
Personally, I’m only doing karaoke if I’m really drunk, or kind of drunk and with a friend. Thus I tend to lean more toward duets, which give you that security blanket to duck behind or let sing louder. Two of my favorites are Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ “Islands In The Stream,” or Elton John and Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” I’m fully aware that teaming up to sing in public is the coward’s way out, but hey, it works. Plus, a good version of either of these songs can really get a whole bar singing along, and that’s what karaoke’s all about anyway.
For several years, encompassing my last period of bachelordom and the beginning of dating my now-wife, I had a standing karaoke date every Sunday night with a rotating group of friends. Seeing as said group encompassed a number of music writers and a few actual musicians, we tended to take it more seriously than some, which meant at the very least checking out a song beforehand to make sure you could hit all the notes and didn’t get tripped up by a half-remembered bridge. It’s been long enough that I can’t remember everything in my repertoire, but I’m pretty sure if I had to whittle it down to one, it’d be Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath,” narrowly beating out Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny.” I didn’t get into music until the summer before high school, and my path was a haphazard one, paved by babysitters and summer-camp acquaintances with no assistance from parents or older siblings, so my initial loves were an eclectic, even incoherent, bunch: Dire Straits, Some Great Reward-era Depeche Mode, and of course, Jethro Tull. It’s hard to imagine a more unfashionable band for a teenager to delve into in the late 1980s, just as the furor for Tull’s Crest Of A Knave beating out Metallica’s …And Justice For All for the Hard Rock/Metal Grammy was at its peak, but there’s something oddly cathartic about diving back into their catalogue as an adult. (“Aqualung” is better known, but the lyrics are too dreadful to sing without embarrassment.) I wouldn’t say I’m reclaiming my misspent youth, exactly, but you’re never quite as devoted to music as at that formative age, so maybe it’s a way of tapping into that level of almost primal conviction. Plus, I can sing the hell out of it.
I have a loud, flat Midwestern voice with a little bit of range—not that I can actually hit notes, but I approximate them gamely enough—so I often default to ’80s pop-metal. Turns out I sing all that music I detested in junior high pretty okay! Exhibit A: Loverboy’s “Hot Girls In Love,” which I always found cheesy-hacky in an appealing kind of way. But the way karaoke often works is that the songs you most want to sing are the ones you remember well but don’t actually listen to much, at least in my case. And about a year after I’d begun singing the song regularly, I heard it on the radio, expecting it to match the experience of yelling the words to a roomful of friends. It didn’t come close. I’ve often fantasized that songs like this one—along with, say, the Journey catalog—could somehow go straight-to-karaoke, the way movies go straight to video or cable. That would be one of them.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my other go-to, which is generally funny for different reasons: Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl.” No, I don’t alter the pronouns when I do it. And yes, I do it completely in character. The first time I did it, at a big spot in Seattle (rather than a rent-a-room one), two very attractive women were grinding on me by the end of the song. Uh! It’s time to jam! Nasty girls, dance, dance, dance!
In spite of my acclaimed performance as “the kid in the top row, second to the left” in my grammar-school choir’s holiday concert, I’ve pretty much accepted that unless I’m singing along with a voice that’s already on-key, I tend to sound like an out-of-tune saxophone. So on the occasions when I do a karaoke night with my friends, I tend to find songs where I can do a lot of talking. The Beastie Boys help in this regard; I know the lyrics to “Paul Revere” almost by heart, and can easily keep up with “So What’cha Want” and “Sabotage,” which tends to wow the three or four people who listen when I step up to the mic. But my favorite song to karaoke is “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by The Charlie Daniels Band. Not only is it one of the best story-songs of all time, but Charlie’s country rap goes so fast that it usually tongue-ties the most game karaoke singer, even if they’re reading along with the screen. They don’t have the advantage of 30-plus years of memorization as I do, considering I bought the 45 of the song (ask your parents about what those were, kids) and listened to it repeatedly when I was an impressionable 8-year-old. When I’m done with the song, I usually get applause, even if it’s from the five drunk guys sitting closest to the speakers. For some reason, it sounds louder than that to me. (Must be the beer doing that.)
I didn’t try karaoke until my mid-20s, and I’d always vowed to make my debut with Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds.” When I finally did it in 2002, I made that classic karaoke realization: “This song is a lot harder to sing than I would’ve guessed.” Since then, I’ve been adrift, karaoke-wise, though I may have recently discovered my new go-to: “Walking In Memphis” by Marc Cohn. It’s become the de facto theme song of Pop Pilgrims since we shot in Memphis in mid-April. Sure, it’s an obvious reference to make when you’re there, but the song has since followed us—we’ve heard it in nearly every city. When we hit a karaoke night in Eugene, Oregon, I decided to continue the theme. I sung it with an overly earnest, Scott Stapp-esque voice (our head production guy, Jamie, later did “Arms Wide Open”), and it brought the goddamn house down, at least in my mind. Less so: my closer for the night, Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” Note to self: Don’t go out with a downer.
In spite of a nasal voice, a shaky command of pitch, and a tendency to mangle the lyrics of every song I tackle, I love karaoke. The fact that I refuse to settle on a single song as a go-to tune only exacerbates my inherent issues, but I’ve never been able to commit to anything. Instead, I tend to look through the giant book until something captures my fancy, which has led to me tackling everything from The Killers to Peaches And Herb (as a duet with my best friend since high school, naturally). This habit has resulted both in sublime moments of karaoke bliss and in really, really awkward on-stage moments. Once, when I tackled Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” I got both. See, it isn’t a great karaoke song—lots of hard-to-sing parts, long instrumental breaks, weird lyrics. When I found myself up there during a solo with nothing to do, I felt a little weird, until I decided to simply start drunkenly ad-libbing rock ‘n’ roll non sequiturs on the mic and pulled a few friends onstage to play air guitar and (of course) air cowbell while I did it. That kind of thing is painfully stupid if planned, but in the moment… well, it’s still stupid as hell, but awesomely so.
Sadly, I have all too few opportunities to sing karaoke these days, even though it was a mainstay of my college social life. The few opportunities I’ve had recently include a local pizza parlor with the worst song selection ever (though they had, for some reason, Deadeye Dick’s “New Age Girl”) and a forlorn Applebee’s in Atascadero, California, which was populated by a bunch of people who seemed as if they’d been headed to Hollywood for parts unknown and washed up there instead. But when I do get the chance, I tend to turn to the classics of one Bobby Darin, particularly “Mack The Knife,” which is probably the cheeriest tune about serial murder ever written. (And yes, I know Darin didn’t write the tune, but his version is certainly the most popular one, and the most likely to pop up in a karaoke binder.) As a baritone, Darin fits in my range just right, and I enjoy adopting the outward trappings of a lounge singer, even if I’m pretty sure no one else ever does. If there’s no Darin, well, every karaoke outfit worth its salt has Garth Brooks’ “Friends In Low Places,” which is one of those songs where everybody everywhere knows all of the words to the chorus, even if they think they don’t.
I’ll come right out and say it: my father used to be a semi-professional Elvis impersonator. While he typically limited his performances to family get-togethers and the occasional wedding reception, I faintly recall him briefly branching out and taking his act on the road. (I also vaguely remember helping him make a rhinestone-studded belt.) This was all pre-karaoke, mind you, and his only accompaniment was another dude on acoustic guitar. He was good—his “Hound Dog” was a real scorcher—but as karaoke began to blow up, it was clear that any goof with a microphone and a little nerve could become the King for three minutes. These days, my dad rarely busts out the Elvis, but whenever I work myself up enough—a.k.a. drink enough—I always sing karaoke to “Suspicious Minds.” It’s a little nod to my dad’s gold-lamé past, and even though the song may not be ideal for weddings, it usually goes over well enough. Here’s to you, Wesley Presley.
Ike and Tina Turner’s “Fool In Love” offers a sweet backbeat, an opportunity to shout James-Brown-esque commands at a chorus of obedient backup singers, and most importantly, a reason to screech “HEY-HEY-HEYA-HEYA-HEEEEEY!” at the top of your lungs like a lovesick, chain-smoking jungle cat. The 1960 song was the first time that Tina, then a backup singer named Anna Mae Bullock, really made an impression on Ike Turner. When another singer flaked, she talked him into letting her fill in on lead vocals—and then gave it absolutely everything she had, singing it so wildly that he yelled at her for nearly blowing out the recording equipment. Given the insane amount of enthusiasm in the vocals, if you can channel even a fraction of it, you’re in good shape. “Fool In Love” is especially well-suited to confident women with low voices, as it’s got all the wailing usually reserved for sopranos, but it’s solidly set in the alto range. Still, let’s not kid ourselves—one of the most important keys to karaoke success is a song that’s under three minutes long, and this one clocks in at 2:52.
I know it doesn’t seem like a typical stand-by for karaoke, but I always go for TLC’s “Waterfalls.” While most people go straight for “Scrubs,” I love “Waterfalls” because of the team element and because of Left Eye’s fantastic rap. And it’s a catchy-as-all-hell song, too. (I’ve never really been a TLC fan.) The result is as much feeling as you put into it, and that includes hand motions. It takes a certain amount of alcohol to get me to lay down the rap (or do karaoke at all, but isn’t that always the way?), but even if I defer to another companion, the social-commentary lyrics still give you a chance to do some finger-wagging and waterfall sprinkle-fingers. Which is totally the best way to impress the single ladies at the karaoke bar at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday night.