Josh Robertson's first karaoke experience was a disaster. Sunburned and dehydrated after sitting at a baseball game all day, he took the stage and hit the first line of David Bowie's "Golden Years." Nailed it. Drawing a blank on the second line, he looked to the television where the lyrics appear, and the screen was black. His golden moment ended in boos from the crowd.
"When I walked on, I think I unplugged the TV from the wall," Robertson said, 15 years later. "I don't know that I redeemed myself, I just know that I embarrassed myself."
Now a co-host of a weekly themed karaoke night at The Twilite Lounge in Dallas, Roberston, aka DJ Hammertimez, 39, has some advice for first-time performers. And if you think you can't sing, don't think you can't nail a karaoke performance. He's got suggestions for you too:
Level of difficulty: Easy to medium — confidence is key
Come prepared. Choose a few songs that are within your vocal range beforehand and listen to them to familiarize yourself. Even if you think you know a song, some could be harder to perform than expected. "The hardest thing to deal with is to watch somebody turn around while you're running karaoke, and they look at you with this look of helplessness," Robertson said.
When selecting a song, shorter tracks are better to keep the crowd engaged. Some genres don't translate well. Avoid hip-hop and rap songs, "unless you know it backwards and forwards … because you're basically the whole song, and there's no time to take a breath," he said. Heavy metal, hardcore punk and screamo also fall into that category. "It's hard to see that violent aggression come across when you don't have a band behind you, and you're just a dude who just got off work."
Keep it light. Nothing sucks the energy out of the room more than when the performer is crying over an ex. Robertson suggests staying away from serious songs, angry breakup songs, pre-song dedications to the deceased or someone who isn't in the room, and wedding toasts. "It's hard to have karaoke and a therapy session at the same time," he said. "You don't go to a restaurant full of strangers and tell everyone your worst problems, so you can't lay all of your problems on a karaoke audience."
There's safety in numbers, so bringing a few backup singers doesn't hurt. But Robertson says no more than three people on stage at a time. "We don't want your entire kickball team singing Chumbawamba — when you get seven people on stage, it's a root canal of karaoke."
Be confident. "If they can't hit a note, but they can do it with conviction and enjoy themselves, that's all that matters," Robertson said. Sing into the microphone, and if you mess it up, keep going. Don't walk off in defeat. "When all you hear is the backup track by the end of the song, that's the worst feeling."
Have fun. Taking yourself too seriously sets you up for failure. Remember, karaoke is a social event. "For me, it has to be fun, and fun has to be funny," Robertson said. "Fun doesn't mean I just saw the best singer I've ever seen in my life. There's just as much fun in (messing up) as there is in nailing a song perfectly. That's the perspective that you have to take."
Classic crowd-pleasers and karaoke kryptonite, according to Robertson:
Songs crowds can sing along to:
Early rock n' roll tunes: Try Buddy Holly's "Everyday" or Little Richard's"Tutti Frutti"
Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'"
'80s dance tracks: Try David Bowie's "Let's Dance" or The Human League's "Don't You Want Me"
Songs that suck the energy from the room:
4 Non Blondes' "What's Up"
The Cranberries' "Zombie"
Any Alanis Morrisette song
Don McLean's "American Pie"