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A Gentleman’s Guide to Karaoke

Last week, we were slightly embarrassed by our performance at Kempt’s annual karaoke gala. So we asked our resident scissor-kick champion, Alex Heigl, for advice.

There are two ways to navigate karaoke: the way of the lurker, and the way of the champion. The lurker attends karaoke only in body, not in spirit; he makes snide comments and half-heartedly mumbles his way through an ironically selected song because he can’t drop his aura of detached coolness. The champion commits, and wins over the entire bar/company/city with his heroic singing.

You are not a lurker.

1. Have “your” song. My go-to karaoke song is “Beast of Burden.” I know all the words, I can hit all the notes, it’s not that common of a song selection, and it’s relatively short. Point is, I know it’s going to be available, I know how to sing it, so I pick it and I destroy it. (My Mick Jagger impression is a thing of mincing, high-kicking beauty.) That’s the key to successful karaoke. Confidence and light preparation. Oh, and soju.

2. Know your range (more or less). For the sake of song selection, know roughly where you can sing. Jim Morrison, Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen are baritones. Bono, Michael Jackson and Bob Marley: tenors. You probably fall into one of those ranges, and it’s important to pick songs that don’t make you sound like Barry White trying to sing Led Zeppelin.

3. If you can’t sing it in the shower, don’t try it here. There is nothing worse than watching someone try to contort their larynx into the key change at the end of “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Unless you know how to sing in real life, you will most likely be trying to hit those notes by screaming, and no one likes watching their coworker or date bellow like a wounded game animal.

4. Pick short songs. No “I Will Survive.” No “Stairway to Heaven.” No “American Pie.” Nothing by Meat Loaf. This is about giving everyone in your party the chance to live out their rock star fantasies, not about watching you sing the one verse of an eight-minute epic that everyone knows before realizing there are six more to go.

[Ed. Note: Disagree. Watching our copy editor unexpectedly nail “I’d Do Anything for Love” is one of my life’s all-time highlights. See also: “Bohemian Rhapsody.”]

5. Don’t be “funny.” Karaoke is funniest at its most genuine. It’s hilarious to watch your boss jump off a couch mid–“Dancing in the Dark” because he just loves the Boss. It’s hilarious to watch an intern bring the office to tears with “Nothing Compares 2 U.” It is not hilarious to “ironically” duet “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” That song is six minutes long—you will be flailing by minute three, trying to sing the part that isn’t the chorus, and people will be sad for you. Don’t make people sad at karaoke.

6. Work the crowd. First, survey your audience. Ask yourself, “Who am I singing this song for?” (Do it with the emphasis. It helps.) Your nerdy friends might enjoy that Faces B-side, but “Maggie May” will get more people on their feet. Is the mood sensitive (“Have I Told You Lately”) or feeling raucous (“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”)? (Yes, that’s all Rod Stewart. Rod Stewart is incredible.) And then, engage: encourage sing-alongs, pass the mic to friends for a verse or single out one person and sing to them (heads up: this can backfire dramatically). If you do it right, it feels like a campfire—a semi-drunken, electronically powered campfire.