1. American Pie, Don McLean. This is the one that people inevitably use to lure their drunk guy friend onstage, because he loves that song, bro, and he knows all the words. First of all, no he doesn’t, and secondly, this song is so much longer than you think it is. It’s only fun for the first three minutes, and then it’s just endless and awkward, and your drunk friend is either resenting you for making him do this interminable thing, or obliviously hamming it up long past the point when it’s funny to do so.
2. Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, The Eurythmics. Turns out this song is essentially about a thousand repetitions of two lines, and those lines are really more “chanted” than “sung.” If you try to sing it, you will wind up in a weird fugue state where part of you is twitching your hips in time with the relentless tempo and trying to chant in a hypnotic manner, part of you is frantically wondering when this stupid song ends, and none of you resembles Annie Lennox in any way, shape, or form.
3. Anything by Adele, Whitney, or Mariah. I was going to say “any one-named female pop diva” but you can pry “La Isla Bonita” out of my cold, dead mouth. You know how good you sound in your car with the windows rolled down singing along with “Rolling in the Deep,” how you feel it deep down in your bones, and Adele has that low register anyway and you know the crowd will be with you? I admire your self-esteem, but no.
4. Informer, Snow. Although this was only a minor hit and is now old, I’ve seen several people try to perform it, and it has been excruciatingly painful for everyone each time. Don’t be one of those people. You think you know the lyrics, but you don’t, and also you don’t have the breath to spit them out even if you did. It’s way too fast, which is why it’s unintelligible to begin with. Many Blues Traveler songs also fall into this category, as do many hip-hop numbers and that godawful thing by Chumbawumba.
5. Songs where you only know the chorus. Yes, you’ll have the words in front of you, but still. You have to have a basic grasp of the song’s structure and story or you will do it wrong, and then get nervous, and be so anxious to get to the part you do know that you’re stumbling all over the place. Trust the woman who tried to sing “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About” by Bonnie Raitt and nearly died from the stress of it. There was phrasing in there I couldn’t nail with a hammer.
6. Soulful ballads from Disney cartoons. Can you paint with all the colors of the wind? If you are a man and you try to sing about it, ESPECIALLY if you gesture with your arms while doing so, your penis automatically shrinks by 25% — and everyone sees it happening. (There are a few exceptions to this rule, but I’m nearly certain that you’re not one of them. If you were, you would already be triple-sure of it and your friends would have marveled several times, unprompted, about how great your rendition of “A Whole New World” was. Don’t you dare close your eyes!) (Certain exemptions apply for gay men, as well.)
7. Songs in another language. Yes, Spanish is largely phonetic, but guess what? Los Lobos actually understood what those words meant! That’s why they did such a bang-up job delivering them. You, sir or madam, are no capitan. You can baila la bamba, but don’t sing it.
8. Anything that requires more than two people to be on stage. If you are drunk enough to think that you and all your girlfriends should perform “I Got Friends in Low Places” or “All the Single Ladies” together, you will live to regret stepping up on that stage. One per mic.
9. Son of a Preacher Man, Me and Bobby McGee, Black Velvet, I Will Survive, She’s in Love with the Boy. These songs are mine, so step off.
Of course, none of these rules apply if you a) are genuinely good; or b) genuinely don’t give care what other people think.
Except rule number nine. That stands.