Why We Karaoke


We don’t go to karaoke because we want to hear art performed at its highest level. We go because we want to make the art ourselves, to form it to our own image, to reinterpret someone else’s words and suit them to our own temperaments. Or to see drunk people acting ridiculous. Whatever the explicit motives, karaoke lets us slip into one of two opposite fantasies.

1. I am a rock star. All eyes are on me. This is my moment to shine.

2. Although I am singing into a microphone in front of other human beings, I am totally anonymous. No one here knows me, and the caliber of my performance is of no consequence.

There is a lot of freedom to performing in front of people who are not specifically there to see you. There’s no pressure. You aren’t the featured attraction. Anything you deliver is a bonus, in the eyes of the unsuspecting audience. It’s the same feeling of going to see your favorite band and really enjoying the opening act. In karaoke, everyone is the opening act to everyone else. It is nearly impossible to disappoint a karaoke crowd.  They simply don’t have enough of a stake in your performance.

In fact, as with any cover band, your song selection has as much to do with the audience’s enjoyment as your actual skill does. As a karaoke singer takes the stage, there’s often a cheer as the song title appears on the screen. The crowd gets excited to hear something familiar in a new way. It’s same way people go crazy at a Dave Matthews Band show when they hear the first few chords of “All Along The Watchtower.” The pleasure of being surprised with something familiar provides the rush of the unexpected without the anxiety of the unknown.

Similarly, the only ways to really displease a karaoke crowd are to

a. Perform so badly that your singing is literally painful to the ears.

b. Choose a song that the crowd does not approve of.

Now, there are several reasons an audience could reject a song choice. Generally, the song being awful is not one of them. I’ve seen karaoke singers rouse rooms of strangers into a singalong by jumping into the first few words of the theme song to Full House. A surprisingly skilled rendition of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” can bring down the house. Both of those songs are not awesome. But either through nostalgia or talent, the performer can rally the audience to their cause.

Generally songs that do not go over well fail to thrive for karaoke-specific reasons. The instrumental breaks drag on too long. Really? “Stairway to Heaven?” You’re wasting everyone’s time unless you are going to sing the guitar solos, and then at that point you’re aggressively ruining everyone’s night. In the same vein, any song that lasts more than five minutes will probably not be a big hit. People want their own turn. The corollary to everyone being the opening act for everyone else is that each person believes himself/ herself to be the headliner. No one likes to be kept waiting for the headliner.

There are also a few guidelines for an exceptional karaoke performance. Very little has to do with having a great voice. Sure, a killer set of pipes will dazzle the regulars, but there’s so much more to it. The performer’s investment in his or her song is the key factor. No one likes to see an artist mail in their set. Karaoke is no different. The crowd engages with a singer who is engaged with the music. A song with an intense emotional core will draw the crowd in more than a less sentimental choice. Folks will be amused to hear “Baby Got Back,” but they will lose their minds if you do “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

An energetic performance can win fans also. Borrow some rock star moves. Bonus points if you crib the strut of the actual performer you’re mimicking. Mick Jagger’s swagger (I call it the “sexy hobble”) or Freddy Mercury’s bold prance. It’s fun and gratifying to see someone really become someone else onstage. And it’s fun to do.

Ultimately, though, the allure of karaoke is the opportunity for praise and adulation with only the slightest risk of failure. How many people feel genuinely appreciated at their jobs? Who, after childhood gets to feel the warmth of the applause of strangers? As kids, we are celebrated all the time for any accomplishment. An extraordinary report card. A valiant attempt at little league. A pirouette at a dance recital. Blowing out all of your birthday candles.

As an adult, the occasions are fewer and further between. Getting that promotion. Closing on a house. An engagement. There are very few “A’s” for effort awarded in the adult world.

Karaoke is the easiest way to earn one. You receive a round of applause for getting up in front of the crowd and another for finishing your song. Any additional vocal or physical theatrics can coax more clapping out of the onlookers. Granted, public speaking and performance are fairly popular fears, which can be a deterrent, but it’s also why karaoke gives you major points just for showing up.

Non-story long, the central appeal of karaoke is that it offers the rare gift of something for nothing. The risk of singing karaoke is minimal and can be mitigated by the amount of friends present and/ or the quantity of alcohol imbibed. The rewards, however, are enormous. You’re the center of attention. People clap and cheer for you. You can sing in public without looking like a crazy person. Once you cross the threshold of deciding to perform, there is precisely no work required to reap the reward of adulation from strangers.

I’ve seen bands booed. I’ve seen comedians booed. I’ve read terrible reviews of elaborately-staged plays. But never ever in my life have I seen anyone disparaged for singing karaoke.

It just goes to prove that old saying: The best things in life are “Free Bird.”

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image – Derek Gavey