In Praise of Obscure Karaoke Songs

In Praise of Obscure Karaoke Songs

Man cannot live on Bon Jovi alone.

A month ago, Lee transformed the subtle alchemy of karaoke song selection into hard science, via the Karaoke Quotient. Honestly, let’s all just take a moment to golf clap for his Google Docs spreadsheet, which actually contains a column for the solo-to-total-length ratio.

That being said, he is all kinds of wrong.

Here’s his very first criteria for karaoke greatness:

The song should be popular for a typical audience. It’s so elementary, but it needs to be said.

Is it so elementary, Mark? Does it need to be said? Mark’s premise is that you’re better off performing a song that everyone in the room knows by heart.

Most audiences, be they friends in a private room or strangers at a bar… 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.

Alrighty then. The Myx Music Awards are the Filipino equivalent of the MTV Music Awards. According to Wikipedia, this year’s award for Favorite Song went to “Back In Time,” by Kyla & Jay-R. Hmm, I’m assuming it’s not a cover of the Huey Lewis song, but you never know. Okay, let me just take a listen to this…

[four minutes later]

Sweet holy hell, this song is goddamn amazing. It’s an R&B duet–in English–about a chance meeting. I’ll let the poetry speak for itself.

[Jay R]
How have you been
The last time I saw you
We graduated high school
I can’t believe it’s been 2 years since then

I’ve been okay
Nothing much has changed
Still doing the same old thing

[Jay R]
Oh may I take a little bit of your timeh

No, I don’t think that would be possible

But it is possible, dear reader.

Just to clarify, that isn’t a translation of the lyrics. It’s what they actually sing. See?

Congratulations Mark. In your attempt to come up with a textbook example of a disastrous karaoke choice, you have discovered what may be the greatest karaoke song of all time.

You see, karaoke is a high risk/high reward endeavor. “Living On a Prayer,” “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” and “Sweet Caroline” are safe crowd-pleasers. But a week later, if you ask anyone who was there what the most memorable song of the evening was, they will not say “Sweet Caroline.” They will say “Back In Time.”

Anyone who has karaoked with me has heard me lose my voice on a completely ridiculous number that no one besides me has ever heard. “Ridiculous” is the operative word here. Karaoke is not the time to show off your fine musical taste. You know a really sweet little ballad from the b-side of one of Aimee Mann’s early albums? Listen to it on the way home. What we’re looking for here is a piece of music that will make people laugh, even if all you do is stand there and let people read the lyrics off the screen.

For instance:


This song is a godsend for the karaokeist who isn’t much of a singer, but loves to ask people embarassing sexual questions. It’s by Clarence Carter, who plays saxamaphone for the E-Street band.

[UPDATE, 7/1, 10 pm: In the comments, Jess points out that I am confusing Clarence Carter with Clarence CLEMMONS. Apparently, I’ve been getting this wrong for YEARS. I was in high school when I heard “Strokin'” for the first time, at the glorious West Hartford Domino’s Pizza. One of my friends told me it was by Bruce’s saxophonist. I now wonder if HE was wrong, or he was playing a joke on me that I just finally got. Anyway, I stand corrected.]

“Strokin'” is basically a simple chorus and a bunch of spoken-word sections.

If you are any kind of a showman, you will be able to address the song’s many questions directly to your friends and/or total strangers. This is audience participation gold:

Let me ask you something…
What time of the day do you like to make love?
Have you ever made love just before breakfast?
Have you ever made love while you watched the late, late show?

And then, my favorite lyric perhaps ever:

Well, let me ask you this…
Have you ever made love… on a couch?

I swear that’s the real lyric.

However, I have to warn you that the material gets a little blue towards the end:

Let me tell you what she told me, she said:
‘Stroke it Clarence Carter, but don’t stroke so fast
If my stuff ain’t tight enough, you can stick it up my…’ WOO!

I got to say, a lifetime of making music with Bruce Springsteen does not seem to have rubbed off on him, singer-songwriterwise.  [Yeah, disregard this.]

Okay, let’s say you like the not-having-to-sing aspect of “Strokin,'” but it’s not quite classy enough for you. Near fear. Might I suggest…

“Is That All There Is?”

This is also a series of monologues, punctuated by the occasional chorus. But it’s a little more, um, Weltschmerzy. Here’s the first “verse“:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire. I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement. I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire?”

Bring the mic close to your mouth and lower your voice to a throaty whisper. Have fun with the sighs and moans. When I do this one, I like to adopt a French accent and takes long drags on an imaginary cigarette between sentences. There are four speeches in total, and if you want to be social, it can be fun to hand the mic around. Announce that whoever gives the most dramatic monologue will win a free drink.

Okay, enough of the spoken-word stuff. You got a set of pipes? Try your luck with:

“Why God?”

This is a show-stopper from the musical Miss Saigon. The composers are also responsible for Les Miz, so you know you’re in for some deadly-serious pseudo-operatic shake-the-rafters belting. But in this case, instead of the French Revolution, you’ll be singing about a Vietnamese prostitute:

Why God? Show your hand!
Why can’t one guy understand?
I’ve been with girls who knew much more.
I never felt confused before!

Here’s a video from a high school production, and I have to say the kid is surprisingly good:

I’ve thought for a while that another song from Miss Saigon would be even better for karaoke: “Bui-Doi,” which is about the illegitimate children of American G.I.s and Vietnamese women. If you can pull that off at a bar on a Friday night, your kung-fu is strong. I’m gonna work on it in the shower.

“I’ve Never Been To Me”

For my money, this is the greatest karaoke song ever. I mean, the title alone is genius. I first heard it performed by Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith, Elrond, Megatron) in full drag, during the opening credits of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert:

But it didn’t make much of an impression on me. The original song (performed by someone named Charlene, one word, like Madonna) is a monster ballad doped up on Quaaludes. But in 2005, I saw a performance of The Dan Band. For those of you who don’t know Dan, yes you do: he’s the wedding singer in Old School who performed “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” He was also the wedding singer in The Hangover, covering “Candy Shop” and “Fame.” Comedian Dan Finnerty has a surprisingly entertaining gimmick: he does only songs by female singers, but he does them in a strangely macho way. I totally think someone (Shana?) could write a great post about the feminism, misogyny, or neutral status of Dan’s act. Wikipedia claims that Gloria Steinem officiated his wedding, which, if true, is worth investigating.

Anyway, most of Dan’s covers are well-known songs like “What a Man” and “Genie In a Bottle.” But he also does “I’ve Never Been To Me,” and it’s a thing of beauty.

Now I have to warn you, this song isn’t for everyone. It will require you to declare that, “I took the hand of a preacher man and we made love in the sun.” Later: “I’ve been undressed by kings and I’ve seen some things that a woman ain’t supposed to see.” Finally: “I’ve spent my life exploring the subtle whoring that costs too much to be free.”

But you will also get to deliver the greatest monologue ever karaoked (yes, I have a weakness for spoken-word karaoke):

Hey, you know what paradise is? It’s a lie! A fantasy we create about people and places as we’d like them to be. But you know what truth is? It’s that little baby you’re holding. It’s that man you fought with this morning. The same one you’re going to make love with tonight! That’s truth, that’s love!

A friendly tip: I’ve been to karaoke places that have this song, but do not display the lyrics for this spoken-word section. Memorize them, just in case. They are words to live by. Friendly tip #2: if you are a man, you will hate the key this is in. That is the price you pay for glory.

I may have to write another post talking about more strange karaoke numbers I’ve had success with. (Sneak preview: “Can You Read My Mind?” by John Williams, “Ticks” by Brad Paisley, “Nuttin’ For Christmas,” and anything from High School Musical 2.) For now, I want to hear about obscure karaoke songs you guys have sung or heard. How did they go over?

Of course, Mark and I don’t really disagree. A karaoke session that consisted entirely of 80s Top 40 would be tedious, and he knows that. So would a session of weird novelty tunes. The songs that rank highly on Mark’s spreadsheet will always be karaoke’s bread and butter, but man cannot live on bread alone. You gotta have the special sauce. So if you have the guts, I urge you to play that role in your next karaoke outing. Either try a tune you know, or pick something with a weird title and do the best you can. Worst case scenario, there’s always the old Skip button.

Now, I have just one question for you.

Have you ever made love… on a couch??

11 Comments on “In Praise of Obscure Karaoke Songs”

  1. Karaoke Guy #

    Sometimes I go to this one place where most people don’t pay any attention to the karaoke singers, and that’s when I pull out the Alice Cooper. “Dead Babies” and “I Love the Dead” will at least get them to pay attention.


  2. Jess #

    Clarence Carter and Clarence Clemons are two different people. (“Strokin'” is actually a staple of the karaoke bars I grew up going to, though, so I can’t quibble with the choice.)

    I agree that a well-performed obscure song can knock people’s socks off. Or a song people vaguely remember but haven’t heard in ages, for the extra nostalgia point. But most people aren’t there to get their socks knocked off by others – they’re there to sing songs, and what happens in between the songs THEY get to sing is just filler, hopefully filler they enjoy and can relate to. Nothing is more brutal than someone with no discernible vocal talent choosing a song nobody knows. (The worst karaoke performance I’ve ever seen was of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” which I had never heard before at the time. It crawls at a snail’s pace, has exactly two melodic phrases, and goes on for about ten minutes.)

    If you aren’t destined for American Idol, at least choose something the rest of the room can cheer for while they wait for their own song to come up in the rotation.


  3. fenzel #

    Strongly agree with Belinkie, strongly disagree with Mark.

    The main benefit of choosing a weird, atypical or obscure karaoke song, if you have the balls to do it, is that you make everybody a little less scared to sing what they want to sing, rather than what they thing everybody else wants them to sing. You turn the karaoke bar into more of a safe space, especially if you’re not the world’s greatest singer while you’re doing it.

    This, in turn, means more people sing songs they enjoy, which makes the performance more fun, which lightens up the room and creates a more positive vibe for everybody.

    Obscure or odd karaoke songs, especially if there aren’t many of them flying around, provide a huge public service. Plus, they win you points if you pull them off.

    Plus, if _you_ like the song, that’s going to be a much bigger factor in whether it’s fun for other people to watch or listen to you sing it than if the song is recognizeable.

    One of my favorite karaoke songs to watch was my friend Dana performing “Sugar,” by System of a Down, totally out of nowhere. It was awesome and it challenged people to have fun while they sang. I loved it.

    Another fun thing to do is to sing a 1 percenter song, where there are going to be one or two random people at the bar who really love the song, and you make their night. “Put On” by Young Jeezy, was a song that did this for me.

    Matt, are you going to write an entry about “The Belinkie Challenge?” I still tell a lot of my friends about it.


  4. Jamas Enright #

    If you want to try something different, you could go for a classic song like, say, “American Pie”, but sing the Weird Al Yankovic version “Tha Saga Begins”. Although you might need to take your own copy of those lyrics along or have a good memory.


  5. cat #

    “Cowboy Take Me Away (by the Dixie Chicks) reached Number One on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in February 2000” I don’t think that counts as obscure. It did in the crowd where I performed it in NY who enjoyed my belting more than I think they enjoyed the specific song. I possibly took it up an octave at times, too.

    I like the bread and butter explanation. If you can sing a more obscure song well, go for it. But if you’re among a group born in the 90s, it’s not a terrible choice to break out the Britney or Christina. That’s just my experience.


  6. lee OTI Staff #

    People, can’t we all just get along? ;-)

    Honestly, I think my ultra-quantitative approach and Belinkie’s approach can exist side by side. My formula returns a numerical value which helps us understand the *likely* potential for a given karaoke song to go over well with a *typical* audience. The formula also speaks to a song’s karaoke potential in its ideal, unspoiled, pre-cliche state.

    Belinkie and Fenzel are both speaking to those hidden gems, those surprise hits that really define the karaoke experience for die-hards like us. Remember, in my last 2 articles on the subject and in the comments, I acknowledged that the formula takes zero account of specific audience tastes, context, etc. I’ll further that acknowledgement and admit that it “shoots up the middle” for a generic, and if you have to say it, bland audience.

    The crowds we run with are typically anything but bland. We revel in the weird and the unexpected. But not everyone does.

    By the way, I think the contrast between my take on karaoke and Belinkie’s is like a perfect left brain/right brain split in the OTI collective mind. :-)


  7. Kathleen #

    Actually, Les Miserables is about the June Rebellion (Paris, 1832), and not the French Revolution. It’s a common misconception.


  8. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Jess – You are totally right about Clarence Carter and Clarence Clemmons not being the same person. I updated the post.

    @Kathleen – You are also totally right. I did actually know that Les Miz is not about THE French Revolution. But trust me, the joke works better if you say “the French Revolution.”


  9. Joe #

    I started choosing “Do It Again” by Steely Dan, except I sing the words to “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. I can guaran-damn-tee you that no one in your local karaoke bar has heard it quite like that.

    Go ahead, try it, it works.


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