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How to Survive a Karaoke evening

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David Mitchell throws his heart into karaoke.

First I was afraid, I was petrified...

Karaoke, as a public establishment where customers sing along to pre-recorded music, originated in Japan. It was reputedly invented in 1971, but in the later decades of the 20th Century it became big in the West, and it can now be found all over the globe.

It is something of a Marmite activity, in that people are usually either gushing fans, or vociferous detractors: few are ambivalent. Some, like North Korea, go to the extreme of banning it. But most countries tolerate it as a mostly harmless activity. Mostly harmless, but not without serious incident: tempers can flare when the reaction to one's song is not what one would like, with disastrous results. Its inventor, Daisuke Inoue, was awarded an IgNobel prize1!

You will find karaoke in the bars and pubs of most big cities, and in holiday resorts and on cruise ships. You can see its influence on TV shows like 'Don't Forget the Lyrics', and in PlayStation games like 'Singstar'.

I grew strong, I learned how to get along...

If you find yourself unavoidably required to be present at one of these events, at for instance a hen night or a charity fundraiser, here are some tips on how to survive.

  1. Don't Panic. No matter how bad a singer you are, the karaoke host will undoubtedly have heard worse. And if you ARE the worst singer the audience has ever heard, well, then your immortality is assured, and you can continue the rest of your life without any further attempts at performance.

  2. Smile. If you look like you're enjoying yourself, other people will smile too— it's infectious. It is much better to go with the flow and send yourself up, than to take it seriously.

  3. Choose wisely. This is the most difficult part of the evening: choosing what song you should sing. A beer commercial in the UK claims that someone always ruins 'My Way' by singing it their way, and there is wisdom in this2. Unless you really, honestly are a fantastic singer, do not under any circumstances attempt a well-known classic. So strike from your list 'New York, New York', 'My Heart will Go On', and 'Stairway to Heaven'. And Robbie Williams' 'Angels' may well be the most popular choice3, but it's not recommended for the novice. On the other hand, another favourite, Journey's 'Don't stop believing', is more forgiving. In fact, most 1980s soft rock is eminently suitable. For assured memorability, you could try something left field like 'Chick chick chicken'4. A word of caution: any rendition of 'Like a Virgin' that involves writhing around the floor is best left un-recreated5. If you really cannot make the decision yourself, you can abdicate responsibility for the end result by getting someone to choose for you, or make a pick at random.

  4. Cheese is good. There is no such thing as 'too cheesy' when selecting an appropriate song for karaoke. Anything by Steps or S Club 7 is guaranteed a warm reception, or consider the fun that can be had with 'Barbie Girl'6.

  5. Get help. Enlist the help of the audience in being your backing singers, or joining in the chorus. The 'Ride Sally Ride' bit in 'Mustang Sally' is always a popular part. Get a bunch of your friends together and sing as a group. Do a duet. If you have no scruples, ask the cutest child in the room to accompany you in something like 'Don't go breaking my heart' or 'I got you babe'. Extra points if the child is in a wheelchair.

  6. Get drunk. No of course not, we always encourage you to enjoy alcohol responsibly! But it does help if you are relaxed, and prepared if not to throw caution to the wind, then at least to let it feel a light zephyr ruffling its hair. As you will be required to read words on a screen, try not to reach the state where your vision begins to blur.

  7. Nod to the original artist. Sing an Elvis song with a curled lip, wiggly hips, and a 'Can I get another burger here!' after every line. Perform an Abba number with an exaggerated Swedish accent. Belt out a country and western ditty with an over-emphasised twang, and encourage the audience to start line dancing.

  8. Tailor to the audience. Make some reference to the group you're with. Sing 'Clowns to the left of me, [insert group name here] to the right'. Use your real name, if you're among friends and family who know it— declare loudly 'This is for Uncle James!' if your surname is Brown, before launching into a full-on over-dramatic rendition of 'Get Up (Get on up)'.

  9. Pitch it right. Good karaoke machines and hosts will check and adjust the pitch so that it suits your voice, but there's nothing to make the heart sink faster than launching into 'Girls Just Wanna have Fun' and realising by the end of the first line that it's unreachably high, and that you have no escape route. Your best bet here is to instantly call for back-up, and trust that the sisterhood will come to your rescue. (See Get Help, above.)

  10. Talk the talk. If you don't want to sing, then don't. Perform your song parlando. Try to recreate William Shatner's melodramatic version of 'Lucy in the Sky', or Telly Savalas' ponderous delivery of 'If'. Dramatic hand movements and swooping gestures go well with this approach. Somewhere between singing and reciting is Talking Heads 'Once in a Lifetime', or Chumbawumba's 'Tubthumpin', which is particularly good for a small group of blokes. (See Get Help, above. See also Get Drunk, above.)

  11. Practise. This is probably regarded as cheating, but you may be able to steady your nerves a little if you perform a song that you already know well, and that you've sung into your bathroom mirror many a time with the unique amplification assistance that only a hairbrush can give.

  12. Applaud generously. Clap and cheer everyone's efforts vigorously. Not only are they more likely to give you a similar reception, but a sense of camaraderie will add to the evening's enjoyment. Remember, it's not a singing competition7, its primary aim is entertainment.

Go on now go! Just turn around now! You're not welcome anymore.

Once you've reached the optimum level of inebriation, chosen the appropriate song, identified your backing singers and dancers, nodded your homage to the artist and modestly received your rapturous applause, do not be tempted to hog the stage. Humiliation is so much nicer when it's shared amongst a large group. Or, as the showbiz mantra goes, always leave them wanting more.

1For peace, of course2 If not humour3England, 2008 according to NME.4 The approach favoured by Donna in the comedy series '2 pints of lager'5 Yes we do mean you, Dorian, in 'Birds of a Feather'. Well may you hang your head in embarrassment!6No, not that kind of fun!7Unless it is, of course. Some pubs and clubs run contests with proper prizes, but that's just taking it far too seriously.

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