There are certain things in life you can’t control: growing old, embarrassing yourself at holiday parties, kissing all the wrong people, ordering three éclairs at Tartine and pretending that two are for friends, and karaoke. Sure, you might not have any musical ability or rhythm or a thirst for the spotlight, but your time on the karaoke stage will come. One of your friends will get engaged and want to have a last boozy hurrah singing Journey songs en masse. Same goes for birthday parties, bat mitzvah after parties, and those work outings meant for getting to “really know each other.” Point is, unless you want to be a terrible friend or lose your job, there will come a time when you will have to listen to friends butcher songs for a few hours so you might as well be ready for this inevitability. Luckily for you, I’m here to give you a few pointers so you won’t embarrass yourself too much and maybe come out of this not only unscathed but with a winning musical number under your belt.
1. THOU SHALL NOT ABSTAIN
If your friend is marrying some dude and invites you to karaoke in order to celebrate a lifetime of spooning and arguing over what kind of take-out to order, you kind of have to go. Yes, even if the guy she’s marrying is the worst. You might think that showing up is all that is required of you. WRONG. Absolutely no one likes the person who shows up and then says something meek like “Oh, I can’t go up there. I can’t sing! But I’ll watch you guys!” Sure, no one will point a gun to your head and force you to sing a Natalie Imbruglia song, but they will make a little mental note about you and file it away in the deepest most immutable part of memory. That note says “So and so is a no-fun bore. No wonder he/she doesn’t have a boyfriend/girlfriend.” You don’t want to be that person, do you? So down your favorite mixed drink and do a vocal exercise in the bathroom if you must ’cause you are going up there one way or another.
2. THOU SHALL NOT DRINK TOO MUCH
I did say have a drink, but don’t over do it. This will lead to your downfall and your dignity will be a more distant memory than that friend you had in preschool who moved away. Getting wasted will impair your judgment (you’ll end up picking a song you have no business singing) and, although you will think your voice sounds like honey or Whitney Houston pre-crack/Bobby Brown, your vocal ability will be a mess. So take it easy. This is not freshman year of college.
3. THOU SHALL NOT JUDGE, LEST YE BE JUDGED
A majority of the karaoke experience is waiting for your turn. For impatient people like me, this can be an ordeal, especially if you have to sit through messy performances from people who haven’t followed Commandment #2. But I warn you not to roll your eyes or make snide comments or talk loudly over their numbers. These people are your future audience and you need to be in their good graces for when it’s your turn. So pay it forward: smile, applaud, woot and holler cause karma takes names.
4. THOU SHALL NOT SING WHITNEY OR MARIAH OR ADELE
I know you want to. I do too! But you shouldn’t, unless you’re opera trained or something. Take it from someone who learned this lesson the hard way. I had one Fernet too many (I’m not perfect!) and I decided it would be a hoot to sing Mariah’s “Fantasy.” Face flushed and a sloppy grin on my face, I leapt on stage and heard those opening chords and instantly knew I had made a big mistake. I looked at the crowd and actually said “Oh. No.” That was a hard 4 minutes for everyone involved and we all learned a valuable lesson so that you wouldn’t have to.
5. THOU SHALL NEVER GIVE UP
Even if you have an experience like the one described above, you are not allowed to give up. No one likes a quitter. Don’t be a baby. Face the music. The best strategy to take the focus off your terrible rendition is the art of distraction. Make a joke out of it. Dance. Offer the mic to someone standing close to the stage for a line or two. And if it really comes to it, enlist a friend or two to help out. It’s part of the friend code, after all.
6. THOU SHALL CHANNEL REAL LIFE EMOTION (TO A POINT)
Emotion from real life events is the fuel to the flame of your karaoke superstardom. So pin your former emo angst onto that song you used to sing in your teenage bedroom. But make sure you don’t overdo it and burn the house down. Another anecdote from my personal saga: Bottomless mimosas and a bad breakup led me to the karaoke stage. In the beginning, things went well. I sang Alanis Morissette’s classic ode to all the wronged lovers out there, “You Oughtta Know.” But things took a turn for the real soon enough and I ended up crying Laura Dern-style by the side of the stage. That kind of sobbing is reserved for private late night showings of Bambi/Beaches/Blue Valentine/Brokeback Mountain/etc. So take inventory of your flood gates before unleashing a tsunami of feelings onto a bunch of strangers. The last thing the world needs is you singing that depressing Sarah McLachlan song from the adopt-this-one-eyed-dog commercial.
7. THOU SHALL DO YOUR HOMEWORK
A little homework goes a long way. Before you hit the karaoke bar, think about the songs you love most and know best. Then ask yourself if this song is in your range. You don’t want to be a baritone singing No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” (not that I would know from experience or anything). Another thing to consider is song length. Pick something around 3 minutes. Even the best of songs start to mold after that. Also beware of instrumental breaks! A friend of mine recently sang a sultry Marilyn Monroe number which had her awkwardly sway for 2 whole minutes mid song. So be prepared! If it’s good enough for the Boy Scouts, it’s good enough for you.
8. THOU SHALL PICK CROWD PLEASERS
If you’re not a good singer, the best thing you can do is pick a crowd pleaser, a song that is so ingrained in our culture and so beloved that everyone will sing along loudly, muffling your inability to hit certain notes. You will be adored! It’ll be like Beatlemania all over again! Maybe you’ll even get a little taste of what it felt like for Michael Jackson to step out onto a hotel balcony (minus the surgical mask and dangling baby).
9. THOU SHALL NOT PARTAKE IN AN OBNOXIOUS GROUP NUMBER
Paper cuts. Paris Hilton’s baby voice. People who don’t cover their mouths when they cough. You know what else is super annoying? When a group of people decide to sing (scream) a song like Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You Been Gone” or the Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There.” This is not cute or pleasing to anyone so think of the greater good and just say no. Ditch the obnoxious back-up singers and go it alone!
10. THOU SHALL TALK TO STRANGERS
Forget what your mother said about talking to strangers. They’re awesome. I recently approached some girl who had sung a Taylor Swift song the week before for advice on whether I should tackle a T. Swift song of my own. Turns out she had already requested that very song. Fast forward twenty minutes and there we were, two people who barely knew each other’s names, linking harmonies in a duet to remember (see evidence above). So go on and talk to that rando. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Got all that? Now go forth and belt it out! And above all, have fun with it! That’s kind of the point.