A Scientific Study of Karaoke, Sober to Drunk
Pass the Mike
I know karaoke often gets a bad rap (and includes bad raps), but I love it and I want you to love it too. If you’ve been hurt before and made to feel like the stage was not a place for the likes of you, this article is dedicated especially to you. I too have felt the dark forces of shame and humiliation that are used to keep us quiet and a little sad. I also happen to know that music, nostalgia and good friends can kick the crap out of shame any day.
To help you find your performance superpowers I’ve designed the following “How-to” karaoke kit which includes: A brief and not too serious history of karaoke, tips for maximizing fun while minimizing embarrassment and the worlds’s first psuedo-scientific karaoke study designed to help you imbibe the optimal amount of alcohol for your next karaoke adventure. That’s right, I got super drunk just for you. You’re welcome.
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Karaoke: A love story
Karaoke is so much more than just an insignificant part of our collective cultural noise. This popular bar activity is a modern vision quest, social experiment, excuse to get drunk and so much more. The karaoke stage is a place to play with class, gender, performance and social dynamics, identity and so much more, all while doing shooters. On the K-stage we test our limits and keep going (because the song’s not over yet and what else are we supposed to do?). We learn how to commit to our mistakes and how to use high kicks to mask our lack of singing ability. We figure out what songs bring tears to our eyes, fill our hearts with nostalgic longing and which ones we should never, ever try to sing. We find out who our friends really are (the ones who cheer no matter what and don’t talk and text during our songs). In summary we bond, take risks and rock the fuck out.
For me karaoke has been a tool of self discovery. I grew up in the MTV generation when the line between professional performer and passive consumer seemed especially thick. Music was something that talented people made and I watched and listened to. I didn’t even like to sing in crowds when the opportunity arose because I was nervous that others would hear my voice and judge me. Then a bossy (now ex) girlfriend forced me to sing solo with her in the car. At the time I was scared beyond reason, somehow feeling that this was exposing a very vulnerable part of myself that I might not want to show to the world. The bossy ex said my voice was fine, decent even.
A karaoke monster gripping a tiny microphone in her sweaty paw was born that day.
How It All Started
There’s a surprising amount of academic research on karaoke, probably because it’s a good excuse for grad students to hang out in bars while doing their “research.” Karaoke (which literally means “empty orchestra”) was invented in Japan in the 1970s as a way for Japanese salarymen to bond while drinking after work. It was more about participation than being an amazing singer and the bosses usually got the biggest cheers.
A mass marketed version of karaoke made its way to the US in the early 1990s and was immediately embraced by the working class and scorned by “cultured” types who considered it derivative copy-caterism and lacking in artistic merit. But many people recognized that karaoke was fun as hell and it got a foothold in the outer boroughs of New York (as opposed to cooler Manhattan) and then spread to bars across the country.
In early 1990s hipster circles it was popular to insult karaoke and act like it was an affront to music and culture. One alternative weekly said karaoke was even worse than the dreaded disco. You can still see evidence of karaoke shame to this day as most articles about it make a reference to the author being a bit embarrassed that they really enjoy the activity. Then in the late 1990s hipsters got involved again and remade karaoke in their own ironic image. Ironic karaoke was born.
You know ironic karaoke when you see it and not just because it’s performed by a person in a trucker hat and skinny jeans. This style of karaoke is very self-aware and the performer goes out of their way to let everyone know that they’re in on the joke. The performance is less likely to be emotionally raw and visceral and more likely to be comedic. Irony–or letting everyone else know that you’re in on the joke, that you don’t really care that much about your performance and that you’re going to add your own original twist to the song–is a protective layer that allows people to perform karaoke without feeling overly vulnerable. It’s a way to say, “You know I’m too cool for this, I know I’m too cool for this, but I’m going to do it anyway just to show that I’m up for anything.” In my opinion, it is not the way of the karaoke warrior. It’s the coward’s way out.
Transcendence Through Karaoke
On the karaoke stage a quiet accountant can become an 80’s hair rocker or a stoic tech bro can feel the emotional wind beneath his wings. We can surprise our friends (and ourselves) with fabulous dance moves and show off hidden talents. We can discover that belting out Bruce Springsteen helps us get in touch with our roots, trying to rap gives us serious respect for actual rappers and long, sad songs should be illegal. The karaoke stage is a place to try on new identities as easily as trying on pants. We can experiment with being as sexy as Marvin Gaye or as crotch proud as Miley Cyrus. Karaoke is basically a four minute social experiment that usually ends with applause.
Though many people tend to focus on the potential negative aspects of karaoke: being nervous as fuck, being laughed off the stage or realizing you accidentally chose a 10-minute song with notes only birds and Mariah Carey can sing, there are lots of benefits to the practice, including emotional therapy. I’ve seen a friend of mine with a great voice and an oft broken heart belt out Alantis Morisette’s “You Otta Know” with a pure rage that was beautiful to see. Anger is an emotion that our culture tells women to shove down and hold inside. Better that it turn into cancer then you let the world know that you are hurt and disappointed, right? Karaoke can be a great place to express socially unacceptable emotions and to play with expectations in general.
Indeed, if you want to get political about it, karaoke can be seen as a rebellion against the professionalization of music and a tearing down of the artificial wall that separates performers and listeners. Since the first Sony Walkman rolled off the assembly line technology has been pushing us to consume music by ourselves and to leave the community aspect behind. Karaoke is a return to tribal traditions when everyone sang together to keep away the wolves and evil spirits and a reversal of these technologically isolating trends. Most people who’ve enjoyed a bout of karaoke with their crew can attest that singing in front of others creates trust, empathy and intimacy. Risking humiliation, exposing yourself emotionally and letting people hear you sound like a scared cat is a serious bonding opportunity not to be missed. Really, the worse you are the more your friends are gonna love you. Nobody wants to do karaoke with the real Adele.
And perhaps most importantly karaoke is a nostalgia factory that brings people together and makes them want to put their arms around each other and sway. Who doesn’t love that warm fuzzy feeling we get when being reminded of the best or most tragic aspects of our pasts? Karaoke nostalgia unites us as a tribe who have been through hell: junior high school dances, tragic breakups, getting fired and worse. We have overcome a lot to be standing on our own two feet in this dive bar today, damn it, and we’re ready to sing about it.
Some people can’t even talk about karaoke without getting nervous and agitated. It’s like the word itself is able to conjure an evil spell that will force them to perform and then hear their friends laughing at them on an endless loop. Try mentioning karaoke to one of your more shy friends and watch it happen. They will flush, start sweating a bit and talking really fast about all the reasons they can’t go.
If you are a nervous about getting up on stage remember the acronym ABC.
A = alcohol
While football has Gatorade and working stiffs have coffee, karaoke singers have booze in its many wondrous forms. Everyone knows that drinking can make karaoke easier and alcohol is a significant part of most karaoke parties. A few of your favorite libations should defiantly loosen you up and make things start to flow. Just be aware of one of the laws of karaoke: As drunkeness increases, singing ability declines and performativity increases. Or said another way more drinks = more high kicks and more vocal atrocities.
B= barely noticing
Noticing that hardly anyone is paying attention to the singer and that only the really bad and really exceptional songs get noticed at all can also be a comfort for nervous performers. Before you get on stage look around. Are most people occupied chatting with friends, looking up their next songs or playing with their phones? And once the songs begin many people are watching the screens and singing along. These are far from Olympic skating judges. The biggest, meanest judge you have is sitting inside you. Try buying them a shot and giving them a songbook to look through. That oughta’ keep them occupied.
C= confidence (the fake kind)
Fake confidence is the key to any great karaoke performance. For best results get fake confident right before you jump on the stage using the following techniques: choose a song that you’re really familiar with that you’ve heard or sung a lot, think of something you’re actually good at and give yourself lots of props, bounce around like a maniac to stir up on endorphins and get your blood pumping and then do a shot. Now you’re ready champ!
A Pseudo-Scientific Karaoke Experiment
To help you along on your karaoke journey of self-discovery, I’ve generously offered to undergo my own experiment to find the optimal level of intoxication to maximize fun and minimize performance anxiety. So, put on your mental lab coat and strap on your psychic safety goggles, because you are about to embark on the world’s first and foremost pseudo-scientific karaoke case study. I will be the human Guinea pig with the mike and anthropologist all in one, recording my experiences in the field, Margaret Mead style. So batten down your ears, order a round of shots and get ready for musical mayhem.
Blister in the Sun by the Violent Femmes – totally sober
I started dreading my commitment to this earlier in the day and my anxious mind kept trying to find ways to wiggle out of it. Maybe just one beer? Maybe I could do the totally sober experiment another day? What if I just imagined being sober, wouldn’t that be good enough? If I wasn’t doing this for the greater pseudo-scientific cause I would have said fuck it and done a shot. By the time I showed up to meet my crew I was really ready to get it over with (always a sign of good things to come). Instead of picking a song I loved, I looked for something short and easy, settling on Blister in the Sun by the Violent Femmes because you can basically yell it out and it still sounds pretty good.
One of the bummers of sober karaoke is that nervousness leads to shallow breathing and singing takes more air than you think. When people who know what they’re doing sing they make it look so effortless, like they have an unlimited supply of air and composure. When nervous people with no vocal training get up there we feel like asthmatic fish. It’s not pleasant. The other problem with sober karaoke is that your inner critic is totally awake, alert and ready to deliver a real time-report on all your screw ups. When you’re nervous it’s like you have Spidey senses so you can to hear every warble, crack and yodel. On stage, when I moved my body, it felt stiff and extra white, so I decided I’d better not to move too much. This was not pleasant either.
The good news is I got through Blister in the Sun, though it felt like a hell of a lot longer than two and a half minutes. I heard my voice falter a few times and fought the urge to laugh (to show that I was in on the joke of my own horribleness) or jump off the stage and hide in the bathroom until closing time. The crowd clapped and cheered when it was over and I even got a few high 5’s from strangers so maybe I wasn’t too bad or they were recognizing my commitment
to a total lack of excellence. I was just glad round one was over. I bought myself a shot and got ready for round two.
If I Could Turn Back Time by Cher – slightly buzzed
Cher is my go-to diva of choice. I grew up watching this middle-aged woman strut around on an aircraft carrier wearing little more than fishnets while thousands of sailors lost their minds with lust. Who could not admire a woman capable of such heroic feats? Cher’s songs also have a blend of pain, regret and redemption that I find irresistible and ‘If I could turn back time’ is a classic power ballad with all the Shakespearean elements. I was feeling friendlier after my shot and beer and decided to warm the audience up as well, “By a show of hands who out there has some regrets?” I raised my own hand and so did most everyone I could see. “Well this song is for all of you!” Then I apologized for not wearing fishnets, which only the older people who had seen the original music video got.
What’s great about buzzed karaoke is that you can still hear the mistakes and take steps to correct them, but they don’t seem like such a big deal. Your inner critic is out for a smoke break. And maybe it was just me challenging universal diva power or the shot kicking in, but I think I sounded pretty damn good. Cher isn’t a roller coaster diva like Adele or Mariah Carey so her songs tend to be accessible to people who don’t have the vocal range of blue whales. For better or worse I started dancing more and even felt a little sexy. Maybe it was beer goggles kicking in but the crowd seemed to like it too.
Living on a Prayer – Bon Jovi – very buzzed
I happen to think this is the ideal state for karaoke and possibly life in general. But since this is a pseudo-scientific study I decided to collect more evidence. I asked one of my laboratory karaoke assistants which of my songs most tickled his fancy or hurt his ears the least. Being a man of science himself he mentioned that while his memories of my first couple songs were clear, later in the evening as his beer intake increased, his note-taking may have become less rigorous. So there is a strong relationship between the drunkenness of the performers and audience that is very symbiotic and probably protective for everyone involved. He said I sounded a little tight and nervous for my first song, but that by the time I was belting out ‘Living on a Prayer’ I had really hit my stride. He noted that I was loose enough to be uninhibited but was not yet sloppy. His conclusion was similar to mine and the karaoke hypothesis in general: Most karaoke performances benefit from at least moderate drinking.
I Want to Come Over – Melissa Ethridge – pretty frickin’ shitfaced
Okay, I don’t remember quite as much about the details of this one as I do the others but I can tell you that the crowd really knew that I wanted to come over. Also after all the dancing and bouncing around my hip thrusting and gyrating was definitely on point. I was drunk enough not to give a shit and so I had the most fun with this song. My friends were up and dancing and generally making my groupie-having dreams come true. I’m not sure the rest of audience had that much fun, but then again I had put up with a lot of their shenanigans so I guess they had it coming.
This initiation ritual is almost complete and its time for me to hand you the mike. I know you’re scared, but that’s part of the fun. The great ones feel that fear and fill out there song request slips in spite of it. They get up on the stage not knowing what’s going to happen and fully ready to dance with their demons (and hug it out afterwards with their friends). And if you start to doubt just remember your “ABC’s” (also a valid song choice, you can go wrong with Motown). You’ve so got this. Together we are totally living on a prayer, and we sure as hell won’t stop believin’ because we gotta have faith. You’re up friend. Are you ready?