Successful karaoke is only tangentially related to the ability to carry a tune, just as a well-rounded set of social skills involves more than the ability to hold a conversation (such as mirroring body language and being in command of a wide repertoire of obscene gestures). Face it, if we wanted to hear “My Heart Will Go On” sung in a technically proficient yet anodyne voice by an unattractive woman, we would listen to Celine Dion herself.
Here are three things that will force your audience to pay attention:
Germane Song Choice
A good karaoke song choice should be some combination of: well-known but not overdone (so this precludes the entire soundtrack to Grease, except for that one Rizzo song); sing-along-able; danceable; catchy; hooky; unexpected; sexually enticing; hedonistic; nostalgic; funny; obscure; out of character for the singer; and/or totally in character for the singer. Karaoke is the perfect time to sing songs you secretly like, but are embarrassed about liking. Boston, anyone? Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam?
A good song choice will also highlight the natural strengths, or downplay the lack thereof, in your voice. If your singing voice is less than bell-like, choose something where you don’t have to pull any Mariah Carey-esque melismatic shit. Or just go up there and turn “We Belong Together” on its fucking head by singing it in a Bob Dylan growl.
For the love of Mike, don’t pick a super-slow song, a 10-minute long song, or anything by Pink Floyd.
Whatever you sing, have the courtesy to know kind of how the lyrics and melody are arranged. No one wants to hear you go up there and sing every third word. The lyrics on the screen are not a substitute for not knowing the song. They’re prompts. Know the fucking song in advance.
This can be real or cultivated. What’s so great about pop stars who aren’t Ke$ha? They’re sexy. Sex, or at least sexiness, is involved, even if abstracted. “Sex” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “intercourse” or even “mutual masturbation.” “Sex” in this instance is an attitude, a way of life, a stance rife with I-don’t-give-a-fuck-ness.
Stars sing about sex and longing; they are unattainable objects of desire on a stage before millions. They (and you, for the 3 to 5 minutes you are a karaoke star) have little in common with the audience other than a fondness for sex. There’s your link; play it up.
If you are in possession of preexisting sexiness, you can just go up there and sing. (Don’t assume you’re sexy unless multiple people per week tell you so.) If not, you’ll need to put in a little extra effort. Practice blasé aloofness, or crotch-grabbing gestures that are funny and brazen because you are so clearly unsexy. Acknowledging one’s unsexiness is a form of sex appeal. Once, while karaoking “Livin’ on a Prayer” in New Orleans after 15 hours of drinking, I gyrated obscenely, simulated fellatio on the microphone, and rolled around onstage with my legs in the air. I don’t know if that qualifies as sexy, but it certainly constitutes a poignant deconstruction of the notion of “sex,” or at least a mockery of the deconstruction, and that’s close enough for me.
Character (Not Your Own)
You know how teachers, self-esteem manuals, and certain types of middle-class parents told you, while growing up, to always “be yourself” because that should be good enough for anyone? Bullshit. You’re not that interesting. Adopt a persona like the best of them. This is entertainment; it’s about singing and acting. Be someone you’re not. Be a coquette, a stripper, a Joey-Ramone-like autistic, a Jedi Knight. Singing Loretta Lynn? Be a teen mom with four kids! Singing Tom Jones? Be a soulful Brit who is physically repulsive yet strangely sexually magnetic! Singing Madonna? Be the Italian-American girl from suburban Detroit you always wanted to be! Or, better yet, mix and match! Sing Beyoncé with a Joan Jett attitude. Sing Roy Orbison in a Tiny Tim falsetto.
Remember, you’re not playing a Royal Command Performance. You’re an amateur in front of 50 or so drunk locals, all of whom are waiting for their chance to display their drunken amateurism too. If you take yourself seriously, you’re missing the whole point of karaoke, which is: getting laid at the end of the evening. And not the kind of getting laid that leads to offspring. This is rock and roll.