Karaoke Basics: Rocking the House Without Losing Your Cool

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Deep down, you know you want to sing karaoke. Admit it: even if you’re super-shy, even if the idea of serenading a roomful of people seems mortifying, isn’t it also—just a little bit—titillating? When you moan along with Beyoncé at home or rock out to Karen O. in the car, don’t you sometimes fantasize that you’re in front of an enraptured, adoring audience? Sure you do. We all do. 

Now that karaoke is officially considered cool (an after-effect of Lost in Translation, in which Scarlett Johansson charms the socks off Bill Murray—and the rest of the universe—with her pink-wigged rendition of The Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket”), karaoke venues are popping up everywhere. Even if there’s no karaoke bar in your town, there’s probably at least one place that hosts a regular karaoke night. In other words, there’s never been a better time to dust off those Journey lyrics you memorized in junior high and join the party.

Nervous? Well, that’s understandable. Even for a convert like me (who started back when karaoke had the same hipness quotient as Yahtzee), it sometimes takes a few drinks for my inner Lionel Ritchie to come out and play. But there are ways to make it easier—to maximize the chances that your karaoke experience will leave you feeling more like Kelly Clarkson and less like William Hung. Trust me—I learned these lessons the hard way, so you won’t have to.

Rule #1: Start out with people you trust. Your first stab at karaoke should never be taken without the presence of a cheering section—a real one, made up of good friends who’ll scream with enthusiasm even if you suck. Because you probably will suck, at least in the beginning. I discovered this with some shock. Even though I sounded great singing along to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” on my home stereo, my awesome pipes seemed to go down the drain when I attempted it in public. Part of the problem was insecurity, but part was also inexperience—it took time for me to figure out how to position the microphone properly, how to sway relaxedly rather than stand like a frozen stalk of asparagus, and how to choose songs that the karaoke machine played in the same octave as the radio did. Fact is, if I hadn’t had a few close friends dancing and reassuringly fist-pumping while I wavered through my un-Rod-like debut, my first karaoke venture might have been my last.

Rule #2: Remember, enthusiasm is more important than talent. Let’s face it: Not too many of us can vocally cartwheel like Christina Aguilera or snarl like Axl Rose. But karaoke isn’t about getting a record contract—it’s about pretending. And most of us have seen more than enough music videos to know how to do that. I remember watching an old boyfriend bring the house down with a karaoke performance of “Start Me Up,” by the Rolling Stones. In truth, the guy sounded about as much like Mick Jagger as my mother would have—but that wasn’t the point. It was his purse-lipped, chicken-elbowed, hip-jerking attitude that was spot-on, and that made people hoot with appreciation. The boyfriend had figured out what drag queens have known for decades: It ain’t the message, it’s the delivery. Assume rock-star passion and confidence, and you will rock.

Rule #3: Embrace the goofiness. Yes, there is something inherently ridiculous about karaoke—but that’s what makes it so wonderful. Rarely have I laughed so deeply and genuinely as the night when I watched a soft-spoken girlfriend perfectly channel Jon Bon Jovi, or the work party where one of my bosses—a slim, gentlemanly editor with three children—suddenly morphed into Meat Loaf with a sweating, gyrating interpretation of “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights.” The incongruous hilarity of such moments actually reveals something rather sweet: no matter how unlikely it may seem, at some point in our lives, all of us have dreamed of filling the stadium and being stars. Maybe that’s why karaoke builds such camaraderie, why a brave performance can make a room full of strangers yell and cheer together like pals. I kid you not. Some of my closest friendships are ones I’ve made at karaoke bars.

Oh, and that boyfriend who nailed the Mick Jagger impersonation? He charmed my socks off. I married him.


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