Better Karaoke For One and All

Karen Corday
Sep 12, 2016 · 7 min read

by Karen Corday and Sarah Howard Parker

Image: Dan Ox

Karaoke is a team sport; your audience is just as important as your performance. If this weren’t the case, we’d all just be singing into hairbrushes in the privacy of our own bathrooms. We’re not talking about audience participation, although that has its place and is often useful, but rather audience appreciation.

In order for your audience to appreciate your song choice and execution, you must appreciate their time and attention enough to offer something more than the usual standards. With all of this in mind, we have put together a few suggestions to ensure a wonderful evening for all involved. Now, go get your slips in and tip your hosts and bartenders!

Don’t Sing This

Paradise by the Dashboard Light” — Meat Loaf

Do Sing This

“Don’t You Want Me” — The Human League

No offense intended to Mr. Loaf, but songs this long are an act of karaoke aggression that no one should tolerate any longer. It’s also a good rule of thumb to avoid anything written by Jim Steinman. (This is not his only entry on this list!) You want to do a funny duet about a stale relationship that’s not a ballad? Try “Don’t You Want Me.” This song should be overdone by now, but it’s surprisingly underused, and the audience might sing along with the WHOA-OH-OH-OH part, which is very heartening and encouraging. Speaking of karaoke aggression…

Don’t Sing This

Bohemian Rhapsody” — Queen

Do Sing This

“Don’t Stop Me Now” — Queen

“Don’t Stop Me Now” has a slow-fast-slow structure like “Bohemian Rhapsody” with the added bonus of also being by Queen while not having been heard a thousand times before by everyone in the room. It’s an action-packed three and a half minutes long, as opposed to seventeen years long. No one is happy to see someone vault up to the microphone for a seventeen-year-long stay. Don’t be greedy. Finally, “Don’t Stop Me Now” contains the line “I am a sex machine ready to explode!” and that is more fun to scream out in triumph than “Scaramouche, scaramouche, can you do the Fandango?” Try it!

Don’t Sing This

Summer Nights” — the cast of Grease

Do Sing This

“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” — Starship

You may think “Summer Nights” is a crowd pleaser, but we assure you that the crowd will be 200% more pleased to hear anything else! Is it a flirty, cheesy duet you’re looking for? If so, look no further than the love theme from Mannequin. You get all of the nostalgia value and none of the awkward lyrics and pelvic thrusts! And who doesn’t love the idea of Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall (in mannequin form) riding off on a motorcycle into the sunset? Waaaay more romantic than two middle-aged “kids” making out under a dock until 10:00.

Don’t Sing This

What’s Up” — 4 Non Blondes

Do Sing This

“Torn” — Natalie Imbruglia

There are better ways to tap into 90’s grrrly angst than channeling Linda Perry and her ridiculous hat. “Torn” gives off a similar decidedly brunette vibe without trying (and probably failing) to get up that great big hill of hope…for a destination. It also has the advantage of being a slightly unusual choice that will still elicit a strong emotional response from your audience. Further options from this genre include anything by Garbage, The Cranberries, or any other 90’s female-led band named for a noun.

Don’t Sing This

Total Eclipse of the Heart” — Bonnie Tyler

Do Sing This

“Alone” — Heart

Power balladeer Jim Steinman rears his leonine head again for the second time on this list. With TEotH, you will inevitably have someone (possibly the karaoke host) acting as “Bright Eyes” and they either will or they won’t turn around. Why risk it? You also may think it’s a clever choice to insert salacious language into this song to make it funnier; you are wrong. Let’s avoid both of these scenarios entirely in favor of the far superior “Alone,” which is an excellent, beloved song that still gives you plenty of room to bring the a little bit gothic/a little bit hair metal drama.

Don’t Sing This

Don’t Stop Believin’” — Journey

Do Sing This

“Can’t Fight This Feeling” — REO Speedwagon

“Don’t Stop Believin’” has had its day and then some. May we suggest moving over to the arena next door where REO Speedwagon will take care of your bombastic, triumphant needs? Just look at those adoring faces in the audience when you clench your fist with sincerity and purpose and sing about bringing that ship into the shore and throwing away the oar forever. Isn’t that a better transportation metaphor than the tired old midnight train going anywhere?

Don’t Sing This

“Piano Man” — Billy Joel

Do Sing This

“Bennie and the Jets” — Elton John

NOW PAUL IS A REAL ESTATE NOVELIST/WHO NEVER HAD TIME FOR A WIFE/AND HE’S TALKING WITH DAVY/WHO’S STILL IN THE NAVY/AND PROBABLY WILL BE FOR LIFE/OH LA LA LA DI DA DA/LA LA DI DA DA DA DUM…(cue audible sobbing)

This song moves quickly from cheerful swaying with drinks in hand to morose reflection on the brutal reality of giving up on one’s dreams and drowning one’s resultant sorrows with a bunch of other sad-sack drunks. BILL, I BELIEVE THIS IS KILLING ME. It’s too real. May we suggest “Benny and The Jets” as an alternative? It is just as instantly recognizable and timeless as “Piano Man” without the violent mood swings. Plus if you feel insecure about your lack of singing prowess, you can sing it in the style of Biz Markie. Speaking of The Biz…

Don’t Sing This

Baby Got Back” — Sir Mix-A-Lot

Do Sing This

“Just A Friend” — Biz Markie

This one speaks for itself and no further explanation is necessary.

Don’t Sing This

I Want It That Way” — Backstreet Boys

Do Sing This

“Summer Girls” — LFO

Look, we can’t believe we’re suggesting this either, but the wacky, OMG remember THIS?!?! reaction you want for your Backstreet Boys throwback isn’t going to live up to your expectations. Everyone in the room has heard IWITW so many times that it’s like elevator music at this point. “But what about that hilarious scene from Magic Mike XXL?!” Yeah, what about it? Are you going to tear open a bag of Cheetos and rain them down upon the most absurd abs in the history of torsos? No? Then do “Summer Girls,” sing about Chinese food making you sick and girls wearing Abercrombie and Fitch, and bask in the late-90’s frosted tips nostalgia-induced adoration you crave and deserve.

Don’t Sing This

Livin’ on a Prayer” — Bon Jovi

Do Sing This

“Praying for Time” — George Michael

There’s no obvious connection here besides prayer. This George Michael song is so beautiful, though. Just sing it. Someone in the audience won’t have heard it in 25 years and they will clasp their hands to their chest in a dramatic fashion when you start to sing.

Don’t Sing This

Any song from a musical or a Disney movie

Do Sing This

“Super Trouper” — ABBA

ABBA is basically perfect for any occasion. And you know what, you can pretend it’s from a musical, because it’s in Mamma Mia. Or, for a deeper cut, you can get really crazy and go with Murray Head’s “One Night in Bangkok” from the musical Chess, scored by the men of ABBA. What we’re saying is if you are desperate to sing something from a musical, consider something with an ABBA tie-in.

Don’t Sing This

I Will Survive” — Gloria Gaynor

Do Sing This

“Fame” — Irene Cara

At first I was afraid…to mention this song. Kept thinking I could never…find a suitable replacement. But then I spent…about 5 minutes pondering it and realized this Irene Cara favorite has everything you need and more, including potential audience participation and interpretive dance moves. And I grew strong…in my recommendation, which I hope you will accept.

Don’t Sing This

My Way” — Frank Sinatra

Do Sing This

Literally anything else

Beyond cruelly forcing your audience to muffle yawns and eye rolls when Ol’ You Eyes takes the stage, keep in mind that there is an actual death curse associated with this song. Please be safe and live to sing another day.


Karen Corday writes, works, lives, eats, drinks, naps, and sings poorly but with great enthusiasm in beautiful Western Massachusetts. She rightfully lost the lead in every high school play to her co-author.

Sarah Howard Parker began her karaoke career around the same time she pretended to have an English accent for several weeks. She would like to thank her co-author for putting up with her during that time. She is now fretting about her song choices in Cambridge, MA.

The Awl

Be less stupid.

Karen Corday

Written by

I took another bubble bath/With my pants on/All the fighting stopped | https://karencorday.com/

The Awl

The Awl

Be less stupid.

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