Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Part 2: What If I’m Just Awful?

If you read my last piece and have any respect for my feelings, you’ve spent hours in your car, painstakingly narrowing your song choices down to the elite few that you can completely own to totally turn on the room.  You’ve found your own sweet spot.  You have an arsenal of two or three go-to songs that will turn heads and keep them turned for at least three minutes and twenty seconds, depending on what sports event is on the big TV. 

But what if you have no sweet spot?  What if you are rhythmically challenged and/or tone deaf?  What if you yearn for the adulation but can’t put two notes together without a stapler? What can you possibly offer?

If your songbird happens to be a penguin, don’t worry, I got you covered. 

Forgive me for labeling you, but you’re probably one of two people; you could be the person who would never want to pollute the room with your sour tones, or the other option, who is too proud (or drunk) to care, and just wants the world to know that you really like Bohemian Rhapsody, and we all get to hear about it for the next eight, painful minutes.  Seriously.  I don’t smoke, but I’ve gone outside for a cigarette on the first note of this song so many times that I actually have brand loyalty and a touch of emphysema.

Fear not, as there is a place for you, but it’s tricky. 

There are four immediate options: rap, sing-alongs, TV show themes and “Tequila” (the song, not the drink, although the drink might help too).

Rap is not to be looked at as a last resort, as it can be done with tremendous grace and beauty, but you really need to know your material WELL.  As usual, practice is key.  Luckily for you and your lack of vocal skills, all you need to do is pretty much talk, and you can almost certainly do that.  But you need to know what you’re going to say before the words pop up on that screen.  A lot of rap songs seem simple until you actually read the lyrics.  If Shakespeare were alive today, he would be REALLY OLD, but that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, so let’s focus please..  There’s a lot going on in even the most simplistic rap song, and it’s very easy to get lost, especially if the accompanying lyrics on the screen are ahead or behind by even a fraction of a second (which can often be enough room to fit an additional “uhhh,” “yo” or “G”).

Getting lost in a rap song is like hitting the wall in Nascar; unless you can get back to the pits and fix your busted vehicle quickly, you’re out of the race.  So find the songs that fit your ability and sing/talk along with them in the car, over and over and over.  Know it inside and out so you could do it blindfolded and tipsy, because depending on the type of bar you’re in, you will probably be at least one of those two things.  And as always, try to make it a song that people will respond to positively.  Rob Base, Vanilla Ice, Hammer, Sugar Hill Gang, Digital Underground, etc.  You don’t have to go full pop-friendly, but we also don’t need to hear about your dead girlfriend in the trunk of your car or your dislike of the police.  We’re all trying to have fun here, remember?

If rap isn’t for you, there’s always the old parachute of the sing-along.  Audience participation is a tall order, but if you’re adorable up front and tell people you need a hand, you may be surprised at the response.  You may get a couple of jerks running up and asking for the other mic (try to avoid that, as they are there primarily to hijack your spotlight and, depending on your gender, touch you inappropriately).  Instead, just pick a song that you and your audience know well, and that you can at least wander through with some familiarity, and do a lot of “let me hear you” gestures with the mic.  If you have a hot crowd, they will see what you’re up to and respond joyfully.  This, when executed well, can result in you barely singing a note, and having the biggest crowd reaction of the night.

Here’s a fun fact; people often forget that a good karaoke bar’s song list will be chock full of all your favorite old TV show themes, and you already know those by heart, plus you’ll only need about a minute and a half tops to breeze though it, and EVERYONE wants to me a part of that fun. It’s fun and it doesn’t take long, like getting a shot (if you happen to think getting a shot is fun). If all else fails, learn “Sweet Caroline” and bring a friend who knows it slightly better than you do.

If you’re not ready to demand that much of a commitment from your audience, there’s always “Tequila.” I thank my friend Marty for introducing me to this concept. It goes something like this.. Instrumental, instrumental, instrumental, instrumental.. TEQUILA!  Instrumental, instrumental, instrumental, instrumental.. TEQUILA!  Just make sure you’re paying attention, because the vocals only come around once every minute or so, so if you miss the first bus, you’re gonna be on the bench looking like a dope for a while until the next one rolls up. But if this is your absolute last resort, EMBRACE IT. Not only will the crowd be with you, they will carry you out on their shoulders and let you ride their motorcycles. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Part 1: What Am I Doing Here?

What Am I Doing Here?

Where does one begin when delving into the murky hot spring that is the karaoke bar?  Before you can answer this question, you must first ask this one:

Why am I here? 

The variety of answers is far greater than you would expect.

Am I a casual observer wandering around with nothing to do because there’s NO WAY I’ll ever go “up there?”

Am I here because the birthday party invitation had this address?

Am I just looking to get drunk, and couldn’t care less what’s going on outside of my own three foot radius?

Am I an aspiring singer who wants to see just how hard it is to get in front of a bunch of strangers and pour my soul all over the cranberry juice-stained carpet in front of me?

..Or am I "the one?" 

If you answered yes to that last option, you’re already on the right track, but you may be a little full of yourself (don’t worry, that’s a good thing).  Believe it or not, the karaoke world needs you.  Not because you’re a star, not because you have a huge following, not even because you may or may not be able to carry a tune. None of that matters if you have the one thing that every karaoke night needs; the ability to capture the crowd for four minutes. 

There are two kinds of people, those who want to sing, and those who would rather take an arrow to the knee.  If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume you choose the non-arrow option.  So let’s figure out who you are and what you can do to own the room and be the four-minute rock star you know you are.

The most important aspect to owning the room is knowing your limitations.  You may be able to pull off a killer Journey track, but Michael Jackson eludes you.  You may own the golden vocal range of Lady Gaga, but fall on your Poker Face with anything by Heart.  It’s okay.  Nobody can sing everything.  This is why you need to find your range.  Range isn’t even a good word.  You need to pinpoint your individual tracks. 

Finding your songs requires a lot of prep time.  Singing in the car is crucial.  Don’t EVER go up there completely “dry” (singing a song you’ve never sung ever). You need to at least know that you can hit 90% of the notes, and what order to sing them in.  The karaoke crowd can be very judgmental, and you’re only guaranteed their attention for ten seconds after your first note, so either you nail it, or they’re all going to go back to talking amongst themselves about the local sports team.  So make yourself an iPod folder or throw all the MP3’s onto a CD of all the songs you THINK you can sing, or at least would like to try.  Then, listen to them in the car, over and over and over.  Once you know the subtle nuances of the track like a dear friend, then, and only then, should you begin to sing along.  And don’t sing it like a person in a car, sing it like you’re going to sing it on the stage.  You’d be amazed what your voice can do when you push it up to 11. 

Your next step is crucial.  Sing along as always, but this time, turn the music down and go acapella. How do you sound now?  Keep singing, but adjust the volume so you can hear your vocals and Justin Timberlake’s at the same time.  Do we have a match?  If so, you are on your way. Now let’s just make sure there’s no single note stuck in there that will throw you off.  There are plenty of songs that I would personally love to do, but can’t because my voice just doesn’t go there.  No shame in that, just pick another song.  There are lots, you’ll be fine.

Now that you know you can sing the songs you want, you need to ask yourself a very important question; is this a song that will own the house?  Let’s face it, everybody who gets behind a microphone wants to be noticed and appreciated, and the more mainstream and fun your song is, the bigger reaction you will get.  The short list of obvious crowd winners has been shared a million times, and I’m sure that if you can sing anything by Bon Jovi or Journey, you don’t need to be reading this.  But what else is out there that’s going to pop the crowd?  For my money, you can’t beat the 80’s.  Your typical karaoke bar crowd is going to love, or at least be familiar with something by Prince, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Madonna, etc.  If you’re stuck searching for a song that you can own, start there, most of it is very easy and familiar. What you should NOT do (if you want the crowd on your side) is find some deep album cut by Steely Dan or whatever.  That’s four minutes of everyone else in the bar counting the minutes until they’re up next.

Finding out who you are and what you can do is the first step to being the Four-Minute Rock Star. The rest is easy, but you don’t get to find that out until you get up there.  

Good luck.