Never Do "Freebird" or Frampton Comes Alive at Karaoke


  • 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 [email protected] or hashtagging #rftkaraoke on Twitter.

1970s music (my fave, along with '60s) has many live versions that are all-time classics. Would it be inappropriate to karaoke the live version of "Freebird" or anything from "Frampton Comes Alive?" -- Show Me the Way

Oh, pumpkin, that's never appropriate. If you tried to sing "Freebird" or anything at all by Mr. Talk Box at my bar, I'd turn down your volume faster than a hooker rushes to the nightstand for her cash.

Theoretically, though, performing the stage versions of songs is fine when you know what you're doing. Most karaoke hosts have at least a few tunes created from artists' significant performances, and singing these well-known ditties can endear you to an audience as you bring everybody back to a special place in history. Goodness knows that my inner '90s girl gets swoony when a guy writes on his arm while singing the unplugged version of Pearl Jam's "Porch."

But there are two major downsides to performing these live songs. First, live versions often are obscenely long. In general, if you choose a song that lasts more than four minutes or so, the audience (and your host) will turn on you. Second, you run the risk of seeming like a fanboy or douchebag when you try to mimic an idol's every iconic move, vocal contortion and lyric change. Unless you can really bring Freddie Mercury to life with crazy clapping and a molester 'stache on the Live Aid version of "Radio Ga Ga," I'd recommend sticking to the traditional stuff.

Is there a song you're guaranteed to hear once drinks kick in? -- Beer Time

It's a hazard in my job, but people often turn to predictable or high-note selections once they've had two hours' worth of booze. The following songs assault my ears almost every Friday about 45 minutes before close: "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Don't Stop Believin'," "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," "Piano Man," "Friends in Low Places" and "Me and Bobby McGee." Looks like my list of most-hated songs is growing, no?

There is one KJ in town who knows me by name as well as some of the songs that I sing. Every time I see him, he calls me to the stage to sing a song of his choice, even if I haven't signed up to sing. I usually say no but get pushed up there by friends. I'm not sure what to do. Confronting the KJ may jeopardize my "in" with him, but not saying anything forces me to sing the same songs week after week against my will! What should I do? -- Here Comes a Regular

Your KJ is either magnificently brilliant or a total douchecanoe.

Interacting with karaoke regulars is one of the hallmarks of a decent KJ. It shows that the host knows and appreciates their contributions, and it boosts audience affinity because others in the crowd then aspire to be namechecked. I have no qualms about springing a duet on a singer if I'm familiar with his or her favorite songs and if I'm certain they'd be up for the challenge. The singer usually enjoys the spotlight, and the audience cheers for the throwdown.

Familiarity, sensitivity and good humor are key, though. I'd never force someone to sing a tune they didn't know - especially as a solo. And there's a special place in hell for KJs who pick shy people out of the audience and force them to either sing or battle for their dignity. That's like an asshole comedian who bullies and berates quiet audience members and claims it's funny. At best, it's awkward, and at worst, it's psychologically damaging. Either way, not cool.

You don't sound like a wallflower, but clearly you're not happy with your KJ's actions. I'd recommend talking with the host, preferably before the show even begins. If you can tell them quietly and personally that you're not into the song surprises, you may be able to retain your good relationship. After that, if the KJ continues to call you out, it may be time to find another singing spot.

Karaoke should be fun, not intimidating. Let me know if I need to film an after-school special about this.

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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