You've Been Had: The Bar Is Using Karaoke to Get to Your Wallet


  • 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.

Who is karaoke for? Is it for the singers? Is it for the audience? Who is the focus of the night? -- Audience of One

As a karaoke host, I'd argue that neither of those is correct; karaoke really is for the bar or venue that's hosting the drunken singalongs. Your favorite watering hole may offer karaoke, live music, arcade games, bar-top casino consoles and trivia tournaments, but your enjoyment of these amenities is secondary to the venue's true purpose: making money.

I hate to burst your bubble, but think about it:

While you're waiting for your appetizer sampler and bucket of beers, you might pump $5 into the old Pac-Man game as you try for the grand prize of entering "ASS" onto the winners' board. In celebration, you'll probably order more Pale Ale for yourself and for your buddies, and you might start thinking that your arcade luck will carry over to the claw machine. You've GOT to nab that dusty, four-year-old stuffed Yoshi, so you drop another $6 until you win it for your nerdy lady back home. By this point, you've spent two hours and about $40 in this bar, but when you hear the first karaoke singer warble "Livin' on a Prayer," it is ON. You order yet another round as you and your crew look through the songbook and argue over the merits of Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison" as a karaoke choice. The bar's pretty full so it's another hour before the host calls you up to sing, but you don't care because you're now doing shots to prep your sweet karaoke voice and give you courage to take the stage. The audience applauds your inventive dance moves as you get to the "Never trust a big butt and a smile" part of your song, which only makes you beg your friends to stay for just a little longer until you can sing "Eye of the Tiger" because you're such a badass.

By midnight, you're convinced that you've had the best night of your life. By midnight, the bar has made an easy $60 on you plus whatever your friends spent, and it also got free entertainment out of your inebriated ass.

That is the point of karaoke. Well, karaoke and everything else in the bar. Passive income rules, and your buzzed little hands can't keep from feeding the machine.

True as all that may be, it's probably not the answer you were looking for. Given the options of the singer and the audience, I'd have to say that karaoke's purpose lies somewhere in the middle. Everyone comes to a karaoke bar for different reasons.

Audience members can enjoy live music (and "music") of sorts while chowing down on potato skins and catching up on friends' lives. They might have bets on what karaoke stereotypes they'll see, or they might just be hoping for a trainwreck. Other audience members see karaoke only as background noise as they shoot the breeze with their favorite bartender or scout the venue for easy, beddable prey.

Karaoke performers might pull out their inner Freddie Mercury or sing through some inner turmoil. By the end of the night, they may have found a groupie who drunkenly tells them that they should have won that terrible INXS reality show.

The audience and performers form a symbiotic relationship, feeding off of each other. Customers clap and howl, nourishing the egos of performers, who then bring even more showmanship to the stage the next time they're called up. As a karaoke host, I really don't care why all of you are there. To get you to stick around and keep drinking, I'll indulge every musical fantasy you've got and tailor your experience to what you're craving. I'm whorish that way, I guess.

When's the best time to sing "Butterfly?" -- Bad Decisions

Um, never.

Ok, I can't exactly tell you that, nor can I keep you from performing it without a reason beyond "I hate this fucking song." But if you're really going to insist on singing something that's on a bazillion "Worst Song Ever" lists, at least ask yourself these questions:

  • Has someone already ripped open the late '90s/early '00s era of suckitude, perhaps with "Headstrong," "Higher" or "Drops of Jupiter?"
  • Are there plenty of skanky drunk girls who are ready to fake-lesbian dance with each other as you sing?
  • Do you have the eye contact and crotch thrusts to truly sell the very special moments of this song?

If so, fire away. Just don't do it around me, unless you want to help clean the blood out of my ears.

Is there some unofficial time limit that KJs find acceptable when it comes to song length? Should somebody be wary of picking songs longer than, say, five minutes? I assume that KJs may be a little nonplussed if somebody chooses "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" at a packed karaoke night, but maybe they'd give more leeway to longer tunes if the place isn't crowded? -- Rock Around the Clock

Have you ever stood in line at a drinking fountain, and the person in front of you keeps drinking and drinking and drinking, oblivious to the people grumbling behind him? Karaoke sometimes gets like that, when one person hogs the spotlight a bit too long, either by performing Meatloaf numbers or taking too many turns. Sometimes those songs are entertaining, but the audience often tires of it. It's up to the KJ to mitigate this as best she can, but some of the responsibility rests with the singers.

Your suggestion of a five-minute limit is a good one, and it's something I try to employ myself both as a host and as a performer. As a KJ, I want as many people as possible to sing. When more people are singing, the bar feels festive, which encourages patrons to have another round (Remember, that's the whole reason I'm there). I'd much rather fit three singers into the time it takes one guy to perform "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." If you're the long song selector, I may ask you to choose a shorter tune for the time being and save your epic rock opera for later in the evening.

There's a reason that most American pop songs on the radio are shorter than four minutes -- that's what our brains tend to absorb before getting bored and moving onto something else. Naturally, there are exceptions, especially in the classic rock genre, but listening to Robert Plant and Jimmy Page hash out "Stairway to Heaven" is very different from listening to Bob the plumber try to sing it for eight minutes.

Besides, keeping your songs to a reasonable length simply is the polite thing to do. You don't want to be the one holding up the line or getting the stink eye, do you?

As an in-demand karaoke host at many 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 sings entirely too many Miley Cyrus songs, and she hates herself for it. Bug her with karaoke nonsense on Twitter at @ambabka, and use #rftkaraoke. Follow RFT Music on Twitter or Facebook. But go with Twitter. Facebook blows.