This week’s AVQ&A comes from editorial coordinator Gwen Ihnat:
What is the worst karaoke experience you’ve ever had?
Unfortunately, “disaster” is my karaoke go-to, as I love it so much I often turn into a way-too-loud mic hog (yes, I am that person at karaoke). But even in my flaming dumpster full of karaoke stories, what sticks out in my mind is the time I tried to pull off Def Leppard’s “Bringing On The Heartache.” Yes, I love Def Leppard—and can even do a passable “Rock Of Ages”—but “Heartache” was completely out of range for me and quickly proved I am not even in the same stratosphere as Joe Elliott. My attempt at the extended notes on the chorus sounded like two feral cats fighting to the death in an alley. It sounded like a mortally wounded wildebeest crying out for help from an isolated savanna. It didn’t sound good, let’s put it that way.
There are plenty of karaoke moments I’d rather forget. (And thanks to the wonders of alcohol, many of them I have.) But putting my own vocal failings or overestimatings aside, the biggest disaster I’ve been a part of is selecting David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” from the book. There’s nothing wrong with Bowie or the song—and it’s pretty simple to sing—but the one thing I didn’t account for was the 54-BAR INSTRUMENTAL DANCE BREAK. And there was no reprieve given by the MC that evening. Just 54 bars worth of awkward dancing and chatter with the crowd. Dancing the blues, indeed.
Sometimes a performance goes beyond the usual “you did a bad job”—and in my case, it was an early effort that not only flopped, but actively got me served a shitty drink by the bartender. It was senior year of college, I had only done karaoke a few times, so I thought it would be fun to prove my chops by blasting through Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” in the bar I had ventured out to. It did not go according to plan—as it turns out, the song I knew every word to and had rapped along with countless times in the car was a lot harder to perform when you actually have to, um, perform. I dropped and/or mangled the majority of it, and despite some reassurance from the host (“give it up for Alex, he just… said a lot of words”), when I went up to the bar afterward, the cold atmosphere in the place let me know how badly it had gone. But the true confirmation: The bartender gave me my drink and said, “This tastes terrible. It’s what you deserve.” He was right on both counts. I never tried it again, and while I don’t even know what he did to that White Russian, it was the last time I ever ordered one.
I once had an amazing, transcendent karaoke experience where I sang “We Are The World” as a room full of drunk Japanese businessmen sang along, an event that gave me a completely unearned, frankly pretty delusional sense of confidence in my singing abilities. This confidence lasted for about two years, until the night I foolishly chose to do karaoke to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” at a company Christmas party. This was early in the evening, and so not many people had arrived yet; my boss at this company didn’t drink, and I always felt awkward getting more than slightly buzzed in front of him, so I was sober at the time. That means I vividly remember every horrible second of my embarrassingly off-key performance, made even worse by my sheepish waves to my coworkers as they walked into the party mid-song. Turns out I am not Steve Perry, it is actually quite difficult to sing like Steve Perry, and just knowing the chorus to a song does not mean you have the vocal ability to pull off the high notes in the verse. I had just started at that company a few months earlier, and would leave a few months later, as one sometimes does in one’s mid-20s. But for that brief window of time, there was no way I could live that fiery plane crash of a performance down.
I am an awful, awful singer and very aware of it so I won’t even entertain the idea of crooning in front of a group of strangers unless I’ve got a healthy cushion of pals around me. And that’s exactly what I had in college, when every Wednesday I’d join a formidable group of friends at our local Buffalo Wild Wings to belt out “God Gave Rock And Roll To You,” content in the comfort that none of them would mock my efforts. One night, however, only a handful of people made it out, leaving me vulnerable when I took the stage solo for one of my go-tos: Genesis’ “Invisible Touch.” Halfway through the first chorus, some tipsy dipshit strolled up next to me. I tipped the mic to him, thinking he may have just wanted to join. Instead, he slurred into the mic, “You suck,” as his clique chuckled nearby. He wandered away sometime during the following verse and I finished the song, but I couldn’t help but feel the karaoke code—Never Make Someone Feel Dumb—had failed me. I’ve never really recovered: These days, it’s private room or bust for me.
Air Supply’s oeuvre is one of longing and loneliness, their soft-rock ballads singularly crafted for dedicating to a new or lost love. If you’re up to it, belting out “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All” at the office party or local karaoke joint can even help you make new friends. But one thing’s for damn sure—you should never, under any circumstances, do as I did seven years ago and sing “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All” in public with your brother. It started off simply enough; he stepped in to help me when I couldn’t remember the words. But by the time we had to chant “out of nothing at all” ad nauseam, we realized how awkward the whole thing was. Family duets in karaoke work if you’re, say, singing “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.” But for this schmaltzy yet effective) power ballad? Not so much.
Like so many before me, I broke the cardinal rule of karaoke—make damn sure you know the whole song, and not just the catchy chorus you remember from the radio—at my own peril. Because while TLC’s “Waterfalls” certainly sounds like a fun jam (especially if, like me, you really only knew it from Weird Al’s parody version, “Phony Calls”), anyone who’s actually familiar with the song’s verses knows that it’s one of the smoothest bummers of all time. Thank god it was only private room karaoke among friends, because by the time I was embarrassedly crooning about little precious and the way “Three letters took him to his final resting place”—nothing invoking a fun time singing with friends better than the lethal specter of HIV, after all—I was ready to be sent down the river myself. It was almost a mercy when Left Eye’s closing rap broke in to put me out of my misery at last.
I’ll do William one worse, and confess to breaking an even more absolute rule of karaoke: Never, ever, under any circumstances perform a song you don’t know at all. Common sense? You’d think! But cooler heads did not prevail the night I joined a group of three close friends on stage at a packed dive bar in a small Michigan town for a truly painful, tuneless rendition of a Backstreet Boys song none of us had ever heard. And as it turns out, muddling helplessly through a tune on first listen doesn’t get any easier or less embarrassing when you have backup. We wanted “I Want That Way.” Hell, we would have settled for “Shape Of My Heart.” But the only one they had at this karaoke spot was some non-single deep cut (I don’t even remember its title—I’ve probably repressed that detail, along with anything else I could from the night of humiliation), and even as friends who grew up in the TRL era, we were running smack dab into the limits of our Backstreet Boys knowledge. The subsequent performance wasn’t cute or funny, even in some obnoxious ironic way. It was just a colossal trainwreck, as four grown-ass men shout-sang lyrics in a very poor approximation of a melody that, again, we didn’t know. When the song mercifully ended, we grabbed our coats and made a beeline for the exit. We did not want it that way. And neither did the crowd, which met our frankly insulting group performance with a deafening, very un-TRL silence.
It’s evident from the responses above that The A.V. Club is currently and historically pro-karaoke. But that enthusiasm can get the best of us, as during the long-ago office holiday party where a roving band of AVC staffers were thwarted multiple times in our search for a microphone we could drunkenly yowl into. We arrived at the neighborhood karaoke spot too early to get any songs in, and since the drinks there weren’t free, we trudged back to the office, where we attempted to commandeer the studio for our own, ad hoc Undercover session—only to be told that it was “off limits” due to all the “expensive equipment” and the potential “insurance liability.” And so we came to the last resort: Plugging a laptop into a conference room TV and singing along, un-amplified, to YouTube karaoke rips. This lasted for exactly one song, probably because a conference room is like the inverse of a private karaoke room: Lots of seating, sure, but it’s all in the center with the open space on the periphery. I just count my blessings that I’d plugged in the single edit of The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” and not the album version whose long instrumental passages I typically fill with ad-libbed parodies of Jim Morrison poetry. That would’ve really made me look like an idiot.