Karaoke Makes Strange Bedfellows: The Logic of Punk Rock/Heavy Metal Karaoke

Karaoke Makes Strange Bedfellows: The Logic of Punk Rock/Heavy Metal Karaoke

Want to be a rock star? Hate rehearsing? For the past ten years, the Punk Rock/Heavy Metal Karaoke band has provided one solution to this age-old conundrum.


Have you ever wanted to be the singer in the greatest rock band on earth?  Do you hate rehearsing/lugging equipment/ drug and alcohol scandals? For the past ten years, the Punk Rock/Heavy Metal Karaoke band has provided one possible solution to this age-old conundrum- the Rock and Roll is provided and you just add the vocals.   What separates PRHMK from all other karaoke nights?  There are no cheeseball videos, no teleprompters for lyrics (you can use a printed out lyrics sheet if you need it), and you’re backed by an experienced three piece band.  Whether you’re onstage screaming out Dead Kennedys lyrics or in the crowd pumping your fist and spilling your beer while watching strangers howl their way through “The Number of the Beast,” Punk Rock Heavy Metal Karaoke is an exhilarating experience.

As much as Punk Rock Metal Karaoke works on a purely visceral level, once you sober up and step back from the fog of karaoke, the pairing makes less intuitive sense.  Of course, on a superficial level, these genres work together because they are both “loud” versions of Rock and Roll.  From this perspective, Punk/Metal Karaoke makes more sense than “Hip-Hop/Acoustic Folk” Karaoke.  At the same time, there are important musical and cultural differences between these two genres that make the pairing less obvious.  Punk rock has always been much more minimal than heavy metal, relying on a few power chords, no major changes in tempo and dynamics, and songs that clock in under two minutes.  As a result, nearly anyone can write, play, and sing a punk song, and the tremendous democratizing effect of these stylistic aspects of the music are a huge part of the genre’s staying power.  On the other hand, heavy metal has always placed a premium on technical prowess; the singers often have tremendous vocal ranges and the great metal guitarists compete with one another to see who can come up with the fastest shredding and most monstrous riffs.

These musical differences stem from a deeper difference in values and attitudes towards mainstream success and popularity. From the Sex Pistols onwards, punk bands have typically placed a high premium on not selling out to major labels and commercial interests (although there have of course been notable exceptions).  On those occasions when bands with roots in the punk scene have achieved mainstream success, it has largely been by morphing into something else altogether, such as new-wave, alternative rock, or emo. Although metal also has a readily identifiable subculture that is just as repugnant and shocking to middle America as the punk scene, many more metal bands have become MTV-friendly, arena-worthy superstars without toning town the harshness, darkness, or grandiosity.

Part of what allows Punk Rock Heavy Metal Karaoke to avoid any major cognitive dissonance is that the list of songs available to sing is quite well-curated. The particular subset of punk, metal, and other songs included on the were chosen to play to the band’s strengths, to be tractable even for for novice singers,  to be not overly repetitive or long, and to above all to be fun to sing either from the stage or the crowd.  As a result, there isn’t a ton of black, thrash, or speed metal, and there is also relatively little hardcore punk (especially of the DC/Boston straightedge variety), Oi!, or post-punk.  Instead, both the punk and metal songs are heavily skewed towards the emergence of each genre in England (Sabbath and Zeppelin’s bluesy proto-metal; New Wave of British Heavy Metal Heavyweights such as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Motorhead, and the raw punk of the Sex Pistols and the Clash), an in American cities such as L.A. and New York (Motley Crue and Guns ‘n Roses on the metal side; and the Americanized punk of the Ramones, Black Flag, and X).

Even though the list of 250 songs available to Punk Metal Karaoke participants does a lot to ensure a certain amount of musical and thematic consistency, the members of the Punk/Metal Karaoke band itself deserve much of the credit for making this experiment in genre-crossing a success. When they first started hosting the event back in 1999, their initial repertoire was only punk songs.  As they played more together, the list got longer, the band got more used to playing together, and they started to expand into heavy metal.  Comparing mp3s from a range of live shows  between 2004 and 2007 to the recent shows that I’ve attended, it definitely seems that as the musicians have become more technically proficient, they’ve developed a distinct sound that falls much more on the pop-metal end of the spectrum.   Regardless of the original genre of the song, the guitars are distorted, but not too sludgy, the solos are solid but don’t sideline everything else, and the songs are played uptempo, but not out of control. Also, the temperature of the porridge is just right. Even songs that are neither punk nor metal, such as Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” are still fan favorites in part because the band plays them as if they are classic hard rock tracks from the late 70s.  As a result, when you now go to Punk Metal Karaoke, it sounds much more or less like a heavy metal band covering punk rock songs, a phenomenon not entirely without precedent:

Guns N’ Roses do a relatively solid job covering “Attitude” by the Misfits (the song starts about 35 seconds into the clip) — all in all, it is a relatively faithful rendition of the album version of the track, with bassist Duff McKagan covering vocal duties and Slash adding a solid guitar solo to “keep it metal”. However, comparing this live clip with a 1983 video of the Misfits’ performance of the same song really lays bare the differences between punk and metal concerts.


This is typical of many live recordings of punk shows: the song is sped up to the breaking point, less than half of the lyrics are sung intelligibly, and if Danzig didn’t say the song’s name before they played it, you would probably have to listen to it a few times to pick out exactly what song it was, even if you had a working knowledge of the Misfits oeuvre.   Yet at the same time, what is lost in musicianship is gained in the ability of the audience to become active participants in the performance by getting in Danzig’s face, bumrushing the stage, and for a few fleeting moments, shouting into the microphone.

Comparing the G N’ R and Misfits versions of “Attitude” does more than show that there is enough common ground to create a punk/metal karaoke night; it also helps to explain why the combination is necessary to make the event works.  If the event were devoted only to highly polished Guns N’ Roses-style pop-metal karaoke, people who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket would probably be too intimidated to take the stage, making the event ultimately much less populist.  At the same time, attending a karaoke night that replicated the vibe of a Misfits show also wouldn’t be very much fun- it is kind of hard to sing along with a song that you can’t keep up with, while simultaneously dodging rowdy stage divers who are trying to snatch the mic from your hand.  It is precisely the combination of a well-rehearsed, talented heavy metal band with punk rock’s enthusiastic obliteration of the distintion between audience and performer that makes Punk Rock/Heavy Metal Karaoke both fascinating and enjoyable.

10 Comments on “Karaoke Makes Strange Bedfellows: The Logic of Punk Rock/Heavy Metal Karaoke”

  1. sheely OTI Staff #

    Wow. While I appreciate the April Fools joke, I now realize how much I’ve become used to the new layout! I feel like I’ve been transported back to the stone age of OTI…


  2. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    I kind of want to see the blog with some really cutesy pink WordPress theme.


  3. stokes #

    Since punk breaks down the distinction between audience and performer, could you argue that ANY karaoke – even Celine Dion karaoke – has the aesthetics of punk rock?


  4. lee OTI Staff #

    I a sense, yes. Karaoke is a kind of DIY, is it not? And DIY is an important part of punk culture, or so I’m led to believe.


  5. Gab #

    Wait, Sheely, you’ve DONE this?

    Where do _Guitar Hero_ and _Rock Band_ fit in, then? I’d say they’re MORE DIY and thus punk because completion of the song(s) and hearing all of the music depends on how skilled and involved you are as a participant. But, then again, the games are an exhibitionistic challenge, while karaoke (even with a real band) is just exhibitionistic- the challenge aspect perhaps makes comparison pointless.


  6. lee OTI Staff #

    I’d say that GH and RB are more metal than punk in that, like metal, they place a premium on technical proficiency. See Youtube videos of kids playing “Through the Fire and Flames” on expert for proof of this.

    Also, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Sheely bust out “Where Eagles Dare.” Or sang “Where Eagles Dare” yourself for that matter. This is too fun for words to describe.


  7. Sheely #

    @Stokes and Lee- Is all karaoke punk?

    Not necessarily. I must admit that my experience of “public karaoke” is actually kind of limited; when I go to Karaoke joints in New York, it is usually to get a private room with a smallish group (which almost always includes some if not all of the contributors to this blog). In those sessions, the spirit is definitely quite punk, whether we’re singing the Clipse, Lisa Loeb, or songs from Avenue Q (yes, all of those were on the playlist of our last Karaoke session).

    But I don’t that think that must necessarily be the case- even though Karaoke is built around audience participation, it need not be of the “making your voice heard by any means necessary” sort that drives a lot of the aesthetics of punk music (as well as the performative aspects of punk shows). I could easily imagine a “Celine Dion Karaoke Night” in which the most prized aspect of performance is sounding just like Celine – as a result, if I went to such an event and romped through “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”, I would probably be politely tolerated at best and booed off of the stage at worst.

    I actually had a kind of similar experience the one time that I attended Hip Hop Karaoke, which like Punk/Metal Karaoke is a big regular event in New York. There is a DJ who plays the instrumental backing track, a host who serves as your hype man, and typed lyric sheets. When I went, I had planed on doing “Juicy” by the Notorious B.I.G., as I could sing that song in my sleep. However, by the time I got around to signing up, someone had already taken it. As a result I signed up for Hypnotize, which I THOUGHT I knew just as well. However, when it was my turn, I realized that half-singing along to the song at a party is very different from performing it without the support of either Biggie’s voice or a teleprompter. Because I could only really land about every third line, I ended up shouting/gesticulating/interpretive dancing-in other words, I more or less did what I do at Punk/Metal Karaoke. People were pretty nice to me, but I think if I did that several times in a row, they would get pretty sick of me- in general, all of the regulars seemed to know every single word to every song, and could have performed any song on the list flawlessly had they been cold-called. The culture of that event definitely revolves around actually rapping very well, and if I go back again, I definitely want be much better prepared.

    @Gab & Lee- Is Rock Band/GH more DIY than Punk/Metal Karaoke?
    I think I agree that in general it is more metal, as you have to put in a modicum of effort/practice to finish songs and advance in the game. My intuition is that many punk bands probably would be very very bad at rock band. I’m reminded of the Sex Pistols version of “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers:

    If this had been in Rock Band, Johnny Rotten would have certainly failed. That said, my experiences playing Rock Band in no fail mode definitely come closer to the punk aesthetic. This is certainly what has happened every time I’ve played drums to “Carry On My Wayward Son” on Expert with No Fail turned on.

    @Gab-Oh man, have I done Punk/Metal Karaoke. I’ve been going pretty regularly since I first heard about it back in December. I think I talked about it on one of the podcasts a while back- it has definitely shaped my music listening habits in a big way. I definitely came into this more from the punk angle, but have gotten into a number of hard rock and metal bands that I had never really listened to including Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and Alice Cooper.

    @Lee- I ain’t no goddamn son of a bitch!

    You better think about it baby, baaaaybeeee.


  8. Josh #

    Overthinking Overthinkingit– The Ramones are in no way Americanized Punk, since Punk is itself American-born.

    It’s strange– I’ve never met anyone who denies that The Ramones are punk rock, yet nearly everyone credits The Sex Pistols as the originators of punk, relegating the entire New York scene of the early 70s (and mid to late 60s!) to “proto-” status.

    Did these people never have to make a timeline in grade school? If Punk Band A comes before Punk Band B, how can Punk band B be the first Punk band? Was there an accident with a flux capacitor?

    Adding The Sex Pistols’ “Roadrunner” cover to the mix makes the whole thing even more hilarious. Sorry Jonathan, nice Jewish boys from Natick need not apply.*

    *offer also not available to weird Jewish boys from Brooklyn or anyone from Detroit or Cleveland.


  9. Sheely #

    @Josh- You’re right-I had meant to revise that paragraph, as I know that I didn’t really do justice to the history of punk and the give and take that took place across the Atlantic (and as written, it definitely looks like I am making the inaccurate assertion that the Ramones were influenced by the Sex Pistols). However, I just left it as it was, mostly to push the article out- thanks for keeping me honest.


  10. Jim #


    And don’t forget an Aussie band got in before anyone British or American. The Saints predated everybody else.

    Not to get into a stupid internet argument or anything. Not my style.


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