While we’re not busy applying sociological analysis to Gossip Girl or discovering the Wagnerian myth behind Iron Man 2, the Overthinkers love to unwind with a rousing karaoke session. Not surprisingly, we take it pretty seriously. We make sure to bring new material to each session, we practice, and we perform with gusto in order to make the experience enjoyable not just from a personal, “I’m singing this song I love” perspective, but also from an entertainment, “I’m brining enjoyment to the people listening to me” perspective.
We think we’re pretty good at karaoke, but it’s only partly due to our abilities to carry a tune. The non-singing performative aspects (dancing, gesticulating, etc.) are important as well, but perhaps the single most important factor in our karaoke success is song selection. Anyone who’s ever been to karaoke knows that there are some songs that work great, and some that just bomb, no matter how talented the singer is. “Sweet Child ‘O Mine” is almost always a bad choice. “Bohemian Rhapsody” almost never fails to bring the house down.
We have an intuitive understanding of why some songs work and some don’t–too long, too repetitive, too hard to sing or rap–and that mostly serves us well. However, I wasn’t content with this. Surely there must be a way to advance beyond these vague ideas about karaoke song choice. If only there were some mathematical formula for determining karaoke song quality, then singers everywhere would have a consistent and reliable methodology for choosing songs well and avoiding the embarassment of stinking up the place with “Yellow Submarine.”
And you know what else we could do? We could find an answer to that most elusive question in karaoke studies:
“What is the best karaoke song of all time?”
Well, without boasting too much, I think I’ve cracked the code. Read on to discover the groundbreaking Karaoke Formula…
…But before we get to the formula itself, let’s ground ourselves with some basic guiding principals in karaoke song selection that drive this formula:
- The song should be popular for a typical audience. It’s so elementary, but it needs to be said. Most audiences, be they friends in a private room or strangers at a bar (more on that later), won’t enjoy your rendition of last year’s Filipino smash hit, no matter how awesome the song is or how well you sing it. They don’t know it, and they won’t be able to relate to, much less enjoy, your performance.
- The song shouldn’t be too long, nor should it have lengthy instrumental solos without any singing. This is what kills songs like “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Sweet Child ‘O Mine.” So what if it’s one of the greatest songs of all time. Karaoke is about live performance, and when it either goes on too long, or goes long stretches without any vocal performance, people start to lose interest. Note: air guitar-ing during guitar solos helps a little, but not enough to justify singing “Master of Puppets.”
- The song shouldn’t be too repetitive. See above notes on audience losing interest.
Now that we’ve gotten the more obvious things out of the way, here are some more subtle factors:
- The song shouldn’t be too difficult for a typical singer to hit all of the notes in the original key. Song difficulty comes in two forms. The first applies mostly to rap songs, but it involves being able to deliver the lyrical content in time with the song. This is what makes “Hypnotize” and “Under Pressure” very dangerous karaoke choices. The second is less for rap and more for those soaring ballads and screaming metal songs that kill singers with their range. Most men can’t hit those high notes in “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Bon Jovi himself can’t even do it these days (Ritchie Sambora does it instead). But note that I mentioned in the original key. Songs with high notes like “Livin’ on a Prayer” are often transposed down a step or two, which helps with singability, but kills in terms of remaining true to the feeling of the original song.
- The song should end strongly. Fade-outs are weak sauce. This is a basic of live music performance that becomes obvious only when prerecorded songs are presented in a live format. If a band is doing a live performance of a song that, in its recorded version, ends with a fade-out, the band will almost never play a fade out; instead, they’ll end strongly, with either a stinging single note, or a big, flourishing, rock finish. Ending a karaoke song with a fade out only saps the energy out of the room that you worked so hard to get there with all of your singing up to that point.
- The song shouldn’t be too repetitive. Those cheesy videos aren’t interesting to watch–people actually pay attention to the words in karaoke, and they’d better be good with not too much repetition, either within the song itself or at the end. Similar to the above point on song endings, repeating the chorus over and over and over again at the end of a song sends the energy level plummeting.
- The song should have a nostalgic quality to it. I can see this one being controversial and/or reflective of bias on my part, but hear me out on this. Newer songs, though they may be all over the airwaves/Waffles/interblogs, haven’t had time to fully disseminate into the body of commonly assumed pop music knowledge for the general public. This is closely related to the popularity point mentioned above, but not exactly the same. Older songs are not only more popular (read: well-known), but they also carry a sense of nostalgia that, when activated, causes the listener to enjoy a song not just for the song itself, but also for the old memories associated with that old song. This is simply impossible for newer songs to accomplish. Note, however, that the song can’t be too nostalgic. Elvis music is, for lack of a better way to describe it, just too old to get a typical karaoke audience excited.
OK. Now that we’ve gotten the basic principles out there, let’s look at the formula itself.
I don’t need a spreadsheet or a formula, because the greatest karaoke song of all-time is Paradise by the Dashboard Light. You can deduct as many points as you want for it being “too long” but you’d be wrong to do so.
#2 is Love Shack.
@Karaoke Guy: you remind me of an issue that I wasn’t able to fully cover in the post or in the formula. A lot of songs have truncated karaoke versions that cut out most if not all of thos insanely long instrumental solos or other weird breaks. “Sweet Child ‘O Mine,” my convenient whipping boy for bad karaoke song, is usually cut significantly in karaoke versions. Same with “Paradise;” most times I’ve sung it the baseball break is entirely cut out. But sometimes it’s not, and the play-by-play words are typically not shown on screen. In those cases, if the singer can’t ad-lib it, the song gets real boring.
I have a ton of other caveats and thoughts that I’ll be posting later in the day…meanwhile, can someone plug in “Paradise” into the formula, perhaps both with and without the baseball segment as the “solo”?
Also…I mostly agree with you on “Paradise” being the best karaoke song of all time, if you have a duet companion who can hold up his/her end of the deal.
I leave the bar when anyone sings any Meatloaf song. And I don’t do private room karaoke with anyone who would dare bust out the fat man.
I’m intrigued, though will have to make some adjustments as the Billboard Hot 100 is not quite representative for Europe, or in my specific case: Belgium (or Holland). Easily solved by taking a similar hit list service.
Not quite sure how, if at all, to distinguish English from Dutch or French songs. Depending on the audience in the room, a given song may have better results if the song in question is in native tongue.
@Anton: So if offered a million dollars to sing, “I’d Do Anything for Love,” your answer would be, “I won’t do that,” yeah?
Sorry, I had to.
Great job, good to see another one of the classic number-crunching posts! I’ll have to see what happens if I put Pure Reason Revolution’s Bright Ambassadors of Morning http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHv5dAFzDKg into the mix, it might come out as the worst possible!
The worst karaoke trunctation I’ve ever run into is Prince’s When Doves Cry. They cut out the entire last minute, which was the only part I really wanted to sing. The rest of the song is pretty boring.
I recently had an unexpected karaoke hit at my regular place when I sang John Mellencamp’s Small Town, except replacing every instance of those two words with “Wal Mart”
Yep, weighted score is 0.83! Which as one of my most favourite songs, shows just how this formula can give awesome song =/= awesome karaoke.
‘Summer Nights’ from Grease is a vastly better Karaoke song than Paridise by the Dashboard lights–all its advantages, none of its pathologies.
And here is the worst Karaoke song ever. You’re welcome.
I think by using VH1 to determine your nostalgia factor may have impacted the results. After all, these are the people that did an “I Love the 2000s” Ironic nostalgia lovefest before the decade was even over.
The best karaoke song is Guns N’ Roses version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” but only if you try and mimic Axl Rose’s audio mugging.
I plugged in the numbers for my favorite song to sing at karaoke, “Centerfold.” The total score, with weighting, was 8.41. Nice to have math supporting my choices!
Oh, worst ever would have to be something from Godspeed You! Black Emperor.. but I thought I would give a song I sing along to often a try.
I won a karaoke contest (with a cash prize) doing “Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer. So, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the best karaoke song ever.
(My biggest competition was a seasoned karaoke dude who did “PIano Man,” so take that as you will.)
Anyone who sings the following in a busy Karaoke bar should be thrown out. (Slow night, fine, busy night, no F-en WAY!)
1.) Bohemian Rhapsody
2.) Anything by Meatloaf
3.) Anything by Gordon Lightfoot
4.) Anything by Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston
5.) Anything by the B-52’s
6.) The only Journey or Bon Jovi sung should be a “B-Side”
And remember, just because you heard it on Glee, or watched some crappy musical does not mean it is a song worth singing.
When you pick a karaoke song, it should be unique and not overdone. If you hear the song sung everytime you are at Karaoke, SIGN UP FOR SOMETHING ELSE! That song is TIRED!
And try, for the love of all things Karaoke, to not be a drunken idiot screaming into the mike! Karaoke is for fun, not destroying the speakers and driving people out of the bar!
-Rob “Il Duca” Loggins
San Francisco Karaoke Mafia
I would argue that “Sweet Child o’ Mine”‘s length can be dilute or negated by the singer’s ability to mimic Axl Rose’s dancing from the music video.
Wonder how “November Rain” would rate then? ;)
But I do ask, related to the “original key” proviso, what impact is there of singing a song for the other gender? Could men pull off a Madonna song? (Yes, one could cite Glee here, but try without the benefit of Autotune.) Could women sing Johnny Cash?
Oh, and how long before Autotune infects Karaoke to the point of making all songs sound the same?
@Rob “Il Duca” Loggins:
You bring up very good points, and that’s one of the important caveats that I really wanted to get out there in the article but couldn’t.
This formula doesn’t take into account 2 important things: 1) how “played out” a song is and 2) the situation’s context/audience. Those are just way too variable and hard to quantify, so this formula really reflects karaoke quality in its ideal, unspoilt, “neutral” state.
Once you introduce things such as how cliche a song is for karaoke, whether you’re at a bar with strangers or in a room with friends, and how late in the session it is, things can go totally haywire.
Depending on who I’m out with, “Piano Man” can be either the perfect song choice or a total dud (e.g. “instant skip.” Either way, if it’s within the first 2/3 of the evening before people have had enough booze, it’s kinda blah.
So putting all those things aside, and granted, those are some really important things, this formula tells you a given song’s *potential* for karaoke greatness. The rest is left to execution and reading the context/audience appropriately.
@Meat Loaf haters:
Why all of the hating on Meat Loaf at karaoke? Is it that it’s generally not sung well, or that you think they’re bad songs to begin with?
@Rob: I’d contest that at least half of the artists you say should be forbidden are kind of staple karaoke song-makers and would probably score pretty well on Lee’s scale if their songs were plugged into the formula.
@Lee: So when you go a-karaoki-ing, is there a “winner” each time? And if so, do they earn more than just bragging rights?
I *won* my own prize at a contest (sort of… it was a station at a video game museum with one of the Playstation karaoke games, and I got the high score in the morning and it was still the high score at closing) with “Take on Me” once, but I still doubt it’s a generically Good karaoke song because of those high notes.
But that makes me wonder if a variable for situational success were to be added, how much different songs would flop around. I mean, a song I and my friends may sing together sometimes and thus would enjoy immensely may not be so hot to everybody else. So I get bonus points for singing it *with them* there, but if not, it doesn’t get any.
I never fail to bring down the house with one of two songs. If I’m singing solo I’ll do Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl” and if I’m doing a duet “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”. Admittedly I’m not a great singer but I do make up for it in stage presence.
Also the best karaoke I’ve ever seen was a brother/sister duo doing “Rock Lobster” about 5 years ago. It was crazy, the sister was running around the bar with a wireless mic and the brother was doing all kinds of rock posturing. Oh, and it was sung well too.
In the mid-90’s, the KJs were pretty good about keeping the rotation going. Sure, they might have sang one song per rotation in the slow part, but they deferred to the crowd as the night got busy.
Today, we have completely idiot KJs who:
(a) let the same song be sung more than once in a night (Karaoke Forbidden!)
(b) sing a song of their own every rotation, regardless if there’s 15 singers up
(c) don’t count duets when deciding whether someone also gets a solo turn (since when can Jill sing a song, then Jack sing a song, then Jill and Jack sing a duet, all before I get my next turn?)
(d) play stupid dance-song breaks! we’re not there to dance (unless it’s to a good singer)… we’re there to do Karaoke, idiot!
Anyway, Karaoke has definitely gone downhill in the US in the past 10-15 years. Thanks for your analysis, as always.
Not only would I say no, I’d deny getting the joke.
The weird part is, I can handle other Steinman songs, like Total Eclipse of the Heart, just fine. But Meatloaf though… gah. The bombast… it burns…
I find Meat Loaf is rarely sung well, and even if it is done ‘justice’ it tends to be an incredibly long and boring song to listen to. I mean, unless you have a nostalgic investment in the song, Paradise, Bat Out of Hell etc are just cheesy messes musically. Two Out of Three, at least, clocks in at under six minutes, but no one ever does that one…
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go sing. I’m planning on trying Sam Cooke’s Twistin’ the Night Away for the first time tonight.
Come to Toronto some time… there are still a ton of great nights & hosts up here. The scene is alive and well.
Wait, no, one more post, since I’m now spamming the thread I might as well go whole hog…
I’m very much of the ‘keep trying something new’ school of thought when it comes to what I sing, rather than the ‘few songs I do well’ school, so the idea of finding a ‘formula’ for what will be pleasing to the average karaoke crowd is definitely appealing. I will be digging into the formula when I have a chance, lee.
Just for a representative sample, I’ll plug in all the songs I did in May (list below) and compare what the formula spits out to what I observed from behind the mic. Should be interesting.
#1 Crush – Garbage
19th Nervous Breakdown – Rolling Stones
Down By the River – Neil Young
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In a Small Town – Pearl Jam
Head Like a Hole – Nine Inch Nails
Heartbreaker – Pat Benatar
In the Meantime – Spacehog
Instant Karma – John Lennon
Jump – Van Halen
Just – Radiohead
Let’s Stay Together – Al Green
Little Green Bag – George Baker Selection
My Iron Lung – Radiohead
Night Moves – Bob Seger
Sexual Healing – Marvin Gaye
Starlight – Muse
Tainted Love – Soft Cell
This Boy’s In Love – Presets
True – Spandau Ballet
Under the Bridge – Red Hot Chili Peppers
@Valatan Thank you. :)
I wonder if certain songs should get bonus points for being recently featured ironically in a sitcom or on the Internet. For example, True (by Spandau Ballet) should probably get bonus points because it was featured on Modern Family earlier this season, to humorous effect. (On the other hand, the song itself wasn’t the main punchline; the name “Spandau Ballet” was. “Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark” was also mentioned in this episode for the same reason.)
I agree with “I Want It That Way” scoring so highly. I hated boy bands with a passion when they were big, but I think that song succeeds more than any other I’ve ever seen attempted, regardless of setting.
I’m surprised no one has mentioned Total Elipse of the Heart, which can be done earnestly (which is hilarious), mock-earnestly (still hilarious), or even “Metalhead having an emotional breakdown, complete with cursing” (maybe the funniest thing you will ever see in your life, if done right).
And as for difficulty, I know it probably wouldn’t work for everyone, but my go-to song is Prince’s “Kiss,” complete with falsetto. The most dangerous thing about this one isn’t the falsetto, but rather the “Wendy and Lisa Parade” dance sequence in the middle of the song. You have to have something prepared for that, or it’s fatal.
Oh, and the single worst karaoke song ever is Picture by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, because EVERYONE IS FUCKING SICK OF IT. Let it go, people.
Should you get extra points for songs with audience-participation-potential? You know, something with a call/response or a chorus that people generally like to join in on? That might be one of the intangibles for ‘Piano Man’, and certainly adds to any rendition of ‘Sweet Caroline’ (well, when you’re singing it in Boston, at least).
Personally, I like to do ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia’ (I can usually get a girl to come up and jig while I air-fiddle the instrumentals), and then pick the girliest song on the playlist to do in my faux-Isaac Hayes voice, because humor provides easier entertainment value than real singing talent (i.e., people are generally more willing to laugh than nod their heads and say “wow, they’re actually pretty good”).
I have a friend who kills it with “Ghostbusters,” and I’ve personally had great success with “I Touch Myself.” I imagine both would rank highly on this scale. “Ghostbusters” has the added benefit of audience participation. (“I Touch Myself” kinda does, too, because most people just can’t help singing along with it.)
Originality is key. One time I sang Tubthumping and acted progressively more drunk as the song went on, to the point that by the end of it I was staggering and could barely form a coherent sentence. It killed. Also, and I was a bit nervous about this one, I sang I Kissed a Girl in the most flaming homosexual voice I could, and it also killed.
i love Meat Loaf
i can’t really sing, so i tend to just do really punked out, yelly versions of songs. Ramones are good for this. or Sid Vicious style My Way
or Subterranean Homesick Blues, ’cause i know all the words. that is kinda boring tho
killed it at a pub with Livin On A Prayer last weekend… got everyone to sing along on the choruses
For some reason, I frequent karaoke bars a lot, but never sing. Super stage fright.
But, I fucking hate Ice Ice Baby. I plugged it into the formula, it got a -43.5.
There are several things mentioned in this thread that hit the nail on the head. But there were a few I simply have to address:
Randall: A good karaoke host entertains the crowd using several means. I can’t let a night go by without doing “Stupify” by Disturbed, because the crowd requests it every time I’m out. In fact, I get several requests to do songs in a night, and if filling those requests entertains the crowd, then so be it. Therefore, I am not about to take myself out of the rotation. It won’t kill you to wait another 4 minutes if the rest of the bar is having a blast.
James Enright: Men can sing Madonna without pitch correction. I sing “Crazy For You” whenever I’m challenged to do a gender-bender.
Il Duca: “Bohemian Rhapsody” will ALWAYS get the crowd going, no matter what. It’s a sing-along song that gets the entire bar involved, and that builds a bond karaoke hosts crave. Full or not, it doesn’t deserve to be on your list of don’ts.
Karaoke Guy: I liked your story about Tubthumping. While Dr Hook’s “Sylvia’s Mother” is a rather boring song to hear when out at a bar, I do it in a way similar to yours – I start up sort of melancholy, and get progressively worse by the end of it until I’m wailing away in actual tears. Then at the end of the song I give the crowd a smile and skip off the stage. It creates an entertainment factor people enjoy. I do the same with Genesis’s “Mama”, and by the end of it, I’m curled up on stage in the fetal position screaming “DON’T GO!”…
Hey folks, the follow-up to this post is live now:
Horrifying comments. CriminalMind has scarred me.