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.