Yes, Your Karaoke DJ Will Turn Down the Mic Volume if You Suck


  • Illustration by Mike Gorman

Karaoke can be a dangerous endeavor. What can you sing that won't make friends shun you? How can you go balls-out during your next performance? Each week in "Ask a Karaoke Host," RFT Music writer and professional karaoke host Allison Babka answers your burning questions about maximizing your melodious mutterings and minimizing your friends' pain. Ask her stuff by emailing or hashtagging #rftkaraoke on Twitter.

What's your position on karaoke hosts who sing multiple times a night? A fine way to start the night, but really? After every rotation? -- You're So Vain

Confession time: I'm a mic hog. Ok, I'm not quite that bad, but I do love taking my turn. The reason I started doing karaoke in the first place is because singing (or, more often, growling) my feelings is musical therapy. I'm not about to give that up just because I'm now the host.

But contrary to how that sounds, it's about more than just being selfish; it's about being a leader and modeling behavior. As a karaoke host, I'm expected to encourage people to sing because, 1) it's entertaining and 2) when people are happily crooning, they're also happily drinking and making money for the bar. If I don't sing every so often to "prove" how "easy" it is, customers might become too embarrassed to head to the stage which kills the momentum (and cash flow). Remember how in "Footloose," everyone stood awkwardly to the side until Ren and Ariel started dancing to "Almost Paradise?" It's like that. I lead; people grow balls and follow. Drinking ensues. Everyone is happy.

That said, I also read my crowd pretty damn well. If people appear curious but shy, I'll offer to duet with them. If their heads bob to the music but it seems like they just want to chill out and listen, I'll turn the night into "The Allison Show," do a few songs consecutively and take requests. If I've got a full house and a lot of eager singers, I might only sing twice in three hours. No matter what, my goal is to feed off of the crowd's energy and desires while getting my own ya-ya's out. It boils down to understanding that night's audience.

Ever had anyone who sounded so bad you turned their volume down? -- William Hung

Yes, I'm ashamed to say. I mean, I don't turn people alllllllll the way down. But if someone is uber-drunk, they've picked the worst song ever or the crowd audibly groans when this person approaches the stage, then sure, I'll turn the mic down and the music up a bit. The singer usually doesn't notice, since I manipulate the sound gradually. Is it the nicest thing to do? Probably not, but it's for the greater good.

Is there anything a singer can do when the DJ has the music too loud and the mic too soft, or visa versa? -- Can't You Hear Me Knocking?

Are you friends with our previous advice-seeker? Are you a terrible singer? You are, aren't you? Don't lie.

Even without tone-deaf shenanigans, stuff happens. There are a bazillion buttons and dials on the karaoke boards, and they're bound to get nudged throughout the night, changing the sound. If you notice something seems off, just tell your DJ. Don't be a dick about it, though, or you might be the one receiving the low-volume treatment during the next rotation.

Is it better to be a versatile karaoke artist or someone with a few well-rehearsed standards? -- History Repeating

Is it a cop-out to answer "both?"

I think that every karaoke singer needs a dozen good songs in his or her pocket. Whether you're a karaoke n00b or a veteran, knowing a few tunes really well provides instant confidence. It also leaves you free to hone your performance skills instead of concentrating so hard on the words.

Don't take that as a license to do the same damn songs all the time, though. For every one song you've got down pat, you should perform three that are new or aren't in your regular rotation. Stretch yourself! Karaoke is the perfect time to try out those tunes you've been humming in the car. Sure, everybody's got a signature song or two, but you shouldn't become a predictable snoozefest. After all, you've got an audience (and a karaoke host) to consider.

As a Friday-night karaoke host at a South County bar, Allison Babka receives her share of drunken song dedications, occasionally makes people cry and even has been glorified by a singing psychic. She's considering adding "Call Me Maybe" to her personal karaoke repertoire, and she hates herself for it. Bug her with karaoke nonsense on Twitter at @ambabka, and use #rftkaraoke.


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