Is Karaoke an Appropriate Response to a Tragedy?


  • 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.

Is it OK to karaoke when tragic events are unfolding? -- Some Weird Karaoke Girl

Surprise: I wrote that one. It's something I've asked myself repeatedly since the Newtown events went down last Friday. Is it permissible to sing some Kenny Loggins just hours after a national tragedy? Is it OK to fret over which dress you'll wear on a first date? Are you allowed to turn off the news and just go clubbing?

I have a feeling that many of us had similar questions Friday. Were we bad people if we continued with our lives? Did entertainment become trivial and off-limits? Ultimately, I don't think so. We all have our own ways of processing difficult information and events. Some of us might eschew food but consume every morsel of news. Others might momentarily tuck tragedy away in lieu of a fun distraction, only to mull things over later. Some of us might not even realize we're processing the information at all. I don't think any of this is wrong.

I was scheduled to host my weekly karaoke session last Friday, and for once, I just wasn't feeling it. I wasn't up for the setlist prep work, the video research, the theme possibilities or the inevitable drunk singers. I've mentioned before that karaoke is therapy for me, but I was in no mood to communicate my feelings through music that night. I was numb. For once, there was no song in my heart.

Oh, but there was. I just didn't realize it.

All day long, I thought about friends and family -- people quite dear to me as well as those who touch my life intermittently. I wasn't purposely recalling that pizza party in the fourth grade or wondering what time I'll get to my parents' house this weekend. Faces and memories just sort of floated in and out of my mind before popping like bubbles as I tried to go about my day.

When I finally made my first setlist just minutes before that evening's show started, I realized that the bubbles didn't fully pop. Each of the songs and artists I had queued up -- from classic rock to new wave to Irish craziness -- reflected connections to people in my life, vestiges of thoughts that were still waving around in my brain. Without intending to, I brought those lovely folks to the bar with me, and their accidental song choices gave me comfort. Fortified, my mood gradually grew brighter, and the songs brought about a personal catharsis and reprieve. And I'm so, so grateful for that.

We'll all float on, ok.

Sorry to turn this into an after-school special. Your regularly scheduled karaoke wankery returns on the next page. Are you familiar with the concept of live karaoke, where a house band plays while numerous people come up to sing? How do you feel about that compared to traditional karaoke with pre-recorded tracks? -- Live or Memorex

I'm familiar with live band karaoke, but I've not yet done it. I KNOW, RIGHT?! Believe me, it's on my list. I have a few friends who specialize in live karaoke (either as performers or singers), and they crow about it nonstop. My bar doesn't have the license to host live music beyond traditional karaoke, so we'll probably never do it there, but I'm game for checking out other spots around town.

I think that live karaoke requires a bit more presence and musicality than traditional karaoke does. There may be a stage or special lighting, and you're getting close to rock star territory. That might be scary for karaoke n00bs, but I could see some of my veterans running with the concept. I don't think one type of karaoke is necessarily better than the other; it's really just a matter of comfort and personal preference.

Is there a basic rule of thumb that covers singing holiday songs at karaoke? Tis the season and all, but does spreading holiday cheer at a bar full of drunk folks who just sang eight country songs in a row come off as more annoying than joyful? -- Christmas in Hollis

I hate everything in your question. I hate marathons of country songs. I hate holiday music. I hate drunk folks who try to grab my ass (I threw that last part in there because, well, yeah).

But you're right to bring up the topic of holiday tunes. Are they fun in some bars but grating in others? Absolutely. This is another "know your audience" situation. If your bar has been crooning Hank Williams all night, test the crowd with a light holiday tune and choose your follow-up song with the reaction in mind. And if you're in a place where the bartenders sport elf ears and jingle bells, you obviously know you'll be OK singing "Santa Baby."

I'd still recommend throwing one or two regular songs into your mix, though. Even this close to Christmas, there are only so many times one can hear "All I Want for Christmas Is You" before going batshit.

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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