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 firstname.lastname@example.org or hashtagging #rftkaraoke on Twitter.
Do you ever let anyone play guitar while they karaoke a song? -- Three Chords and the Truth
I've previously talked a little bit about what does and does not constitute "karaoke." Sorrynotsorry to tell you that strumming while singing (Like, literally. Not euphemistically, pervs.) doesn't really cut it. While there's some overlap, the audiences for karaoke and performance art often are different -- karaoke crooners might be miffed if an instrumental concert were forced upon them, and vice versa. In addition, some bars have specific types of permits. For example, one of my bars gets the green light for karaoke but doesn't have a permit for live music. If you want to go all-in on some John Mayer shit (Please don't, unless you're talking about Katy Perry's boobs), you'll have to take your talents to an open mic night.
Sometimes emotion forces me (or my bar) to make an exception, though. At last week's Valentine party, an older gentleman asked if he could play his saxophone to Michael Bolton's version of "When a Man Loves a Woman." He wanted to dedicate it to a couple at his big table that clearly was celebrating something important. After discerning that he was a professional musician who just happened to have his saxophone in his car from a previous engagement that evening (instead of someone who purposely brought his horn to the bar), I told him I'd allow the sax solo as long as he understood that it would be for one song only and would be among the first three songs of the evening. I queued up the formerly-mulleted Bolton, and the gentleman went to town, delighting the entire audience and endearing himself further to his friends. Could we have gotten into trouble for that? Yeah. But those three minutes of spontaneity and warm fuzzes were totally worth it.
Has anyone been "discovered" from a karaoke session? -- I Love L.A.
Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. You've been watching "American Idol" a little too much, haven't you?
Label bigwigs don't often frequent the bars and events where I host karaoke. A stray "American Idol" top-25 contestant occasionally shows up, but no one who can send you on your way to stardom. Being discovered at a bar, on the street or in the restroom might happen in Los Angeles or New York City, but in a tiny joint in south St. Louis County? Not so much.
Karaoke terrifies me, but my friends do it, so I want to build up some nerve to go with them. I thought I'd start with one of those karaoke video games so no one can see how much I suck. Are they any good? -- 21st Century Digital Boy
I'm going to be honest with you: I haven't played a karaoke video game in about two years. When you karaoke fo' realz as often as I do, there's just no time (and almost no point) to sing into a fake mic. But I definitely agree that singing along with pixels at home could help you get over your karaoke fright.
I teethed on various Rock Band titles, and the breadth of songs within those games absolutely influenced what I love to sing at karaoke ('90s alternative and classic rock) and what I keep in my go-to song list. Watching the words fly by with the proper notes on the musical staff really helped me consider where my voice should be heading and what kind of pacing I should adopt. Moreover, the notes jiggled glaringly when I was pitchy, which forced my perfectionist ass to concentrate on singing correctly -- especially on expert level. Nailing 100% of each song was intoxicating, the downloadable song selection was unbeatable and being given the mic instead of asking for it contributed to my confidence. I can't recommend this game series enough.
I've tried a few other karaoke games -- various incarnations of Guitar Hero, SingStar and Karaoke Revolution -- but they didn't hold my attention the way Rock Band did. All of those games had graphics issues or a limited song selection, or there was a bit of lag between the words you sang vs. the words you saw.
As an in-demand karaoke host at multiple bars and events, 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.