Artists Pay Back (The Blog)

January 15, 2011

Off-Key Songs of Obligation

When the new year started, I made four resolutions:

1. Write more

2. Write more

3. Write more

4. Use more redundancy-based humor

My original thought was to write at least an hour a day. That hasn’t worked out to plan exactly, though I did do a blog post last week so, you know, small steps. I decided that if nothing else, I would at least make a new blog post every weekend. I have very dedicated readers (hi, mom!) and I would like to reward them (her) by putting crappy stuff up more often.

So, even though I really have nothing insightful or humorous to say in particular, I thought, why should that stop me? It never has before. Besides, writers write, right?

Last weekend we made a trip to a nice little local place where they have karaoke on Saturdays. Now I love karaoke. That’s not to say I’m a good singer. I think I’m adequate and I’ve gotten compliments from time to time. I have a limited range that clearly does not include Peter Gabriel (this was found out recently when I Abu Ghraib’ed “In Your Eyes” – I am awaiting a trial on war crimes. I will plead guilty.) It’s more about stage presence (which is really about alcohol) and how comfortable you are belting “Love Shack” songs in front of strangers. See, there are certain rules. Like, don’t sing “Love Shack” songs. Ever. (More on that in a minute.)

Before I get into what’s important to know for singers, allow me to talk to the Karaoke DJ’s or hosts or KJ’s or whatever you call them, for a moment. I know it’s your equipment. I know you’re a fantastic singer (in the same way that toddler pageant mother’s are great parents). I know you want to play along. But you’re not allowed to sing UNLESS no one has the stones to sing and you’re trying to get the party going or you’re in a singer rotation of three or fewer people and want o break up the monotony. Otherwise just play the songs and let the paying customers live out their Carrie Underwood fantasies (I just realized that means something TOTALLY different for guys).

Karaoke nights generally run for 4 – 6 hours depending on the bar. This means you’ll get about 10 singers in an hour. You should not be one of them. In a typically crowded bar, 40 o-60 songs means that the people there will sing three or four songs for the night. You’re getting paid to be there, and though I know your interpretation of “Send In The Clowns” always kills, we don’t want to hear it. I’ve seen some KJ’s put themselves into the singer rotation which is astounding to me. It’s like the ride operator at Disney World taking a solo turn on Magic Mountain every hour. You’re there to run the show for us, not play along. If you must, give yourselves a couple of songs (early in the night) and then turn it over to rest of the people. I’m even okay with maybe doing the last song of the night.

Okay, and now on to you, the singer. Here are five things to remember the next time you’re ready to rock up on the mic (and subsequently wish to rock the mic right):

Rule #1 – Song selection – It’s important to note that song selection matters but only if you want to get the people involved. If you just want to sing your Toad The Wet Sprocket tunes and enjoy yourself, then don’t worry about what the rest of the bar thinks. Just do your thing. But if you really want the high fives (see rule #4) or just the fun of getting people singing along with you, then you’ve got to pick the right tune. There are some obvious choices that will almost always work (note that none of them are ballads, this is key):

Then there are the songs that should really be eliminated from every bar in the country. You’re guaranteed to hear at least one at least once in any bar yo go to and they are invariably shout-sung by the worst singers. They may seem like crowd-pleasers but they aren’t and they really just tell us all we need to know about you:

  • Love Shack – Yes, when it’s time for “tin roof – RUSTED!” everyone will sing it with you. This is not validation, but rather some sort of Pavlovian obligation. No one wants to hear this song sung by the shouting girl who managed to get her reluctant boyfriend/gay buddy onstage with her because it would be “SO AWESOME!”

    Rockin' the mic right

    Yes, You Will Survive. Us? Not so much.

  • Summer Lovin’ – This one usually results in 8 – 10 people crowding the stage with a bunch of bubbly co-eds “acting out” the lyrics while the guys play along with faces that read “this better get me laid.” Though there will be one guy who misses high school drama. He’s the one that holds the mike and really emotes those last few verses (falsetto!) while the rest of the guys lean away, teetering ever close to falling off the stage as the song progress.
  • I Will Survive – Though I’m sorry your marriage ended, I’m beginning to understand why.
  • Mony, Mony – Yes, yes, I know why you’re singing it and, we as a crowd, will oblige with the hidden refrain. But we’ll hate ourselves for it after.

Rule #2 – Know the lyrics – Okay, I know it’s starting to sound a little Simon Cowell-esque here  with the first two rules, but they are important. AI is after all just televised karaoke and these rules are universal. It never fails to amaze me how several people in any given karaoke bar will sing a song that they apparently have never heard before in their life. If you have to stare at the screen, you probably shouldn’t be singing. This is especially true if you want to rap. Rap opens up karaoke to people who won’t actually sing. Rap lyrics move fast and if you lose your place (or, often, have no rhythm at all – you know who you are) you just end up awkwardly shouting the last word in each line a second too late (much like the one guy in every rap group who awkwardly shouts the last word of each line a second too late and who is likely the lead rappers cousin).

Bad singers are fine and understandable in a karaoke bar, people who don’t know the words to the song that THEY CHOSE. Flubbing a line or two or missing a mark is fine, but if you’re staring at the screen like it’s scrolling Sanskrit while you laugh nervously and spread your hands at the audience you will get things thrown at you.

Rule #3 – Pander when necessary – This really just an extension of rule #1, but it applies to people who REALLY want the bar to notice them. The right pandering song will garner you some good will and, when you go to sing your next song, people will take notice. This allows you the chance to sing something that maybe won’t go over as well, but the vibes from the previous song will carry you through. This is sort of the same way that Matt Damon picks movies, mixing a crowd pleaser with a ‘prestige’ piece. For every Bourne Awesomeness he puts out a Syriana.

Rule #4 – Seriously, this isn’t American Idol – Most likely when you sing the rest of the bar will be doing any number of things, what they probably will not be doing is paying attention to you. If you can hit rule #2 and 3 successfully, you can probably get their attention, but otherwise, the crowd will be:

  • Talking
  • Picking their next song from the catalog
  • Drinking
  • Watching TV
  • Ordering more drinks
  • Eating
  • Playing pool/darts/foosball
  • Walking past you to go to the bathroom
  • Walking past you to ask the KJ how much longer till it’s their turn

Basically this is how dinner theater performers feel.

Don’t let this bother you and just go with it. You’re not there to be discovered (oh, and that guy is not a talent scout, I don’t care how nice his business card is). Unless you’re really good (you’re not) or really bad (a distinct possibility), no one cares other the people you came with and they only sort of care and want to make sure when it’s their turn that you sort of care too. You’ll get the applause at the end and, in the true sign of a good performance, high fives on the way back from strangers. When others are singing, just make sure you applaud at the end.

Rule #5 – Know your talent level – Really this means to not take yourself too seriously. Chances are you’re not as bad as you think…or as good. Most karaoke singers fall into a comfortable middle ground. You’ll circle around the right notes and pitch, though probably be a little flat. You’ve (hopefully) heard the song enough to stay on tempo and verse, and it’s time to just get up there and tear it up. You’ll always get your “if things had gone right, I’d be on tour” singers who will actually make you stop thinking about your next song or how many more shots it will take to get your boyfriend to duet with you on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (three, by the way) and take notice. And of course you’ll get the “my parents/guys who want to sleep with me, always tell me how great I am” singers who destroy some Britney Spears song and leave the stage to thundering applause from the single guys (ironically, Britney Spears herself is in this category.) For the rest of you, don’t take yourself so seriously. If you are closing your eyes from the power of the emotions, or making sweeping hand gestures, or (god help you) putting one hand to your ear, you better make it ironic. Smile when your voice cracks and throw your hands up in triumph at the end. Make sure we know that you know that we know.

August 1, 2010

Pop Culture Conversion Chart

I have a twelve year old daughter. Thank you. Her worldview is like that of any preteen which means that she is under the false impression that the experiences of her generation are completely original. Music, movies, fashion, personal tastes – the whole sphere of pop culture surrounding her demographic is like nothing no others have seen.

It is therefore my job to let her know that in reality her entire generation is ripping off my entire generation (who, incidentally, DID do everything original. Pipe down, mom.)

It always fun to deflate her arrogance with a “yeah, we did that first.” In her defense, the big reason that I can do this is because my generation is pretty much running the pop culture machine these days and if there’s one thing my generation excels at, it’s being narcissitic. So the people making movies, TV shows and music are regurgitating our childhoods to the people buying movies, TV shows and music. Because of this, the younger generation has no choice but to feed on our reheated leftovers. (A quick look at the multiplex confirms this, eh, B.A. and Perseus.)

Recently, she was throwing out what she deemed originals of her generation and I countered with the equivalent from mine. The following is a simple “Your generation’s THIS, was our generation’s THAT.” It’s a handy conversion chart for anyone who either needs to counter their own budding brainiac or for those who are a’scared of the new generation and think that you can’t relate. Come on now, we unleashed Boy George on the world, surely you can handle Adam Lambert.

And that’s as good a place as any to start:

1. Your Adam Lambert was our Boy George

2. Your Spongebob was our Flintstones

3. Your Jonas Brothers were our Bee Gees (or maybe Hanson for the slightly younger)

4. Your High School Musical was our Grease

5. Your Twitter was our AOL Chatroom

6. Your 3 month wait from movie theater to DVD was our 3 YEAR wait from movie theater to broadcast TV (edited with commercials, yay!)

7. Your Rob Thomas was our Peter Cetera

8. Your 24-hour Cartoon Network was our 8am-12pm Saturday Morning TV

9. Your Adult Swim was our Heavy Metal

10. Your American Idol was our Star Search

11. Your Lady Gaga (desperately wishes she) was our Madonna

12. Your Michael Jackson was our Elvis (oh, we had a Michael Jackson too, though you wouldn’t recognize him)

13. Your Eddie Murphy is (nothing AT ALL like) our Eddie Murphy (seriously, not even close)

14. Your Selena and Demi was our Tiffany and Debbie

15. Your Glee was our Fame

16. Your Kesha was our L’trimm

17. Your Mac was our Commodore 64

18. Your iPod Touch was our Walkman strapped to a Game boy mounted on a Commodore 64

19. Your Peyton Manning was our Joe Montana

20. Your Wii was our Atari

21. Your Seacrest was our Kasem

22. Your Silly Bandz were our Jelly Bracelets

23. Your So You Think You Can Dance was our Dance Fever

24. Your emo was our new wave

25. Your Sia was our Sade

26. Your texting was our passing notes

27. Your Wikipedia was our Cliff’s Notes

28. Your Nick At Night was our local UHF channel

29. Your Yo Gabba Gabba! was our The Electric Company

30. Your UFC was our WWF

31. Your Beyonce was our Janet Jackson

31. Your dance “Jerk” was our “Cabbage Patch”

32. Your Gossip Girl was our 90210

33. Your Pixar was our Disney


34. Your ‘beast’ was our ‘gnarly’

35. Your ‘meh’ was our ‘lame’

36. Your ‘hella’ was our ‘totally’

37. Your ‘tight’ was our ‘rad’

38. Your ‘OMG’ was our ‘no way’

39 – 41 submitted in comments below

42. Your Monster Energy Drink was our Jolt Cola

43. Your World of Warcraft was our Dungeons & Dragons

44. Your Annoying Orange was our Max Headroom


That’s the list off the top my my head. If there’s anything I missed (or perhaps got wrong), I’d love to hear it.

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