Welcome to The Playlist Project, where we’ll be posing musical questions to Paste staff, interns and writers and then compiling their responses into a handy playlist before opening it up for discussion in our comments section.
There are all types of karaoke singers. The shy and reluctant ones who require mass amounts of liquid courage, the overly enthusiastic ones who should probably bring it down a notch or two, the mind-blowingly talented ones who you had no idea could sing like that. But everyone has their secret weapon song, the one that they pull out when the timing is just right. We’re talking about the song you know like the back of your hand. You’ve memorized the lyrics and have every enunciation and pause down pat. You’ve mastered all the corresponding dance moves—whether they were created by the artist or by yourself isn’t important. All that matters is that it’s your moment to shine. We all weighed in for this week’s Playlist Project prompt…
The B-52’s, “Love Shack”
Not everyone has that traditional karaoke voice. That’s why I recommend that guys who don’t think they can sing grab a girl who can for a duet—specifically “Love Shack” by The B-52’s. The stage is less frightening when you’re not on your own, and in this case the girl will carry the load. Fred Schneider’s range is about three notes. It’s more about attitude than ability. Own your Fredness, and those three and a half minutes will fly by.
The Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays”
You know that scene in The King’s Speech where we learn that all King Colin Firth needs to do to overcome his debilitating stutter is pop on a pair of headphones and let the music drown out the sound of his own voice? That’s basically me and singing. I will happily sing along to pretty much anything—in the car, in the shower, at my desk…it doesn’t matter, as long as that lead vocal is there to guide me to the right key. Once you take that away, something short-circuits in my brain, and the pitiful warbles that come out of my mouth are pretty embarrassing for everyone involved, so karaoke is not something I’ve ever done, save for a few private performances in front of friends and family I know will still love me even if I sound like a dying animal. But I know in my heart that one day the stars will align and with the perfect amount of booze flowing through my veins—enough to help me pull off an overwrought New Wave song about a school shooting from 1979, but not quite enough to give me alcohol poisoning—I will step up to a mic somewhere with the confidence of a Canadian tuxedo-clad Bob Geldof at Live Aid and do “I Don’t Like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats. What I lack in technical ability I will make up with pure camp, miming the “silicon chip inside her head gets switched to overload” line, seizing the song’s many opportunities for audience participation (those handclaps, the call-and-response chorus), emoting as though I’m singing The Most Important Song In The World on parts like “there are no reasons, what reasons do you need to be show-oh-OH-WHOA-OWN” and of course, milking that dramatic pause after “school’s out early and soon we’ll be learning and the lesson today is HOW TO DIE.” Then, like The Boomtown Rats themselves, I will fade away quietly, but those who were there to witness it will ask each other for the rest of their lives, “Remember that time Bonnie did karaoke?”
Shania Twain, “That Don’t Impress Me Much”
My obsession with Shania Twain began when I was eight years old, the same year I saw her live for the first time after winning tickets through my local radio station. Shania donned several outfits on this November night, but the most memorable was her iconic leopard-print getup which she debuted in her music video for the sassy, comically nonsensical “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” Unfortunately, 75 percent of the time you queue up this track at a karaoke bar, the video that plays does not feature a badass, albeit stranded, Shania dancing in the desert and turning down hot dudes left and right. Instead you’ll be belting “WHOAH-OAH YOU THINK YOU’RE SPECIAL?!” to one of those typical karaoke videos that feature slow-moving shots of random scenery. Appropriate. Then again it makes about as much sense as treating Brad Pitt, rocket scientists, and cars as equals.
Living Colour, “Cult of Personality”
It’s fun, even when you butcher it. Which you will, because you can’t sing like the guys from Living Colour. But seriously, there are really only two schools of thought in karaoke. Either you’re a very good singer, and you can choose to sing whatever you want. Or you’re not a very good singer, and you should choose something for the sake of maximum ridiculosity. I am not a very good singer, although this isn’t for lack of enthusiasm. So when in doubt, go for a song that was the walk-out music for the longest-reigning WWE Champion of the modern era, CM Punk. You can’t go wrong.
Looking Glass, “Brandy”/Vanessa Williams, “Save the Best For Last”
We did karaoke at our wedding. We own a karaoke machine and like 50 discs. I once DJ’ed the most awkward karaoke party ever at our annual office party when I was working for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts—only four people sang in a room of 100, so I had to kill time and basically put on a private concert for my coworkers. I can’t sing at all but I love karaoke. My go-tos are “Brandy” by Looking Glass, which was the first karaoke song I ever sang, at the old Embers Lounge back in Athens, and “Save the Best For Last” by Vanessa Williams. A fun thing to do is rent a karaoke room with one of those super high-tech machines with the massive song list, and then do a round of kamikaze karaoke, where you enter a random number and make your friend sing whatever song pops up, whether they know it or not.
Creed, “With Arms Wide Open”
“With Arms Wide Open” by Creed. No consonants or limbs akimbo allowed. If you do your job right, at least a third of the bar will spit its drinks out laughing. The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” is a great closer.
Cher, “If I Could Turn Back Time”/Faith No More, “Epic”
This one always goes over big with a mixed-bag karaoke crowd: it’s a familiar, bombastic anthem, and it’s easy to fake-sing (I cannot say the same for “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” sadly). With a mic in my hand and the synthy chords of the intro, instantly I transform into willowy, permed-hair Cher of 1989, wearing a preposterously skimpy fishnet get-up and strutting around on the deck of a battleship surrounded by a bunch of Hollywood extras dressed up as Navy men. It’s a great place to be, actually. The audience and I connect without collective drag-queen persona, and all is right with the world.
My childhood friend and karaoke soulmate Kelly and I bonded over the video for Faith No More’s “Epic” when it was in heavy rotation on MTV in 1989. We absolutely rip it up, saving it for last because we just blow apart our vocal chords doing the standard Mike Patton rap-sing vocals. Our karaoke bonanzas are the ultimate manifestation of our friendship, and it reminds me that singing in front of other people to a cheesy background track taps directly into the deepest, most significant human emotions possible. And that truly is Epic.
Toni Braxton, Un-Break My Heart
My go-to karaoke song is “Un-Break My Heart” by Toni Braxton, a.k.a. 100 percent pure, Grade-A catharsis.
Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”/Prince, “Purple Rain”
Singing a Bruce Springsteen song is about energy more than technical expertise—it’s about garages and backyards and faking it until you’re making it. “Born to Run” may be the most perfect karaoke song out of his whole oeuvre. Crowd-pleasing dynamics, deceptively simple choruses, an economically timed saxophone break: the song drips with showmanship without killing your vocal cords, not to mention it’s damned sexy as a chronicle of American-approved rebellion and youthful lasciviousness. If you can hold that near-iconic “RUN” during the chorus without faulting, chests will heave and loins will stir—guaranteed. And people will only know that what you’re performing isn’t as impressive as it seems if they attempt it themselves…which they won’t. So, go ahead and fake it until you make it; embrace the spirit of Springsteen.
Every karaoke bar will have “Purple Rain”; but only the most dedicated of venues will have the whole thing. Because, as anyone can attest, the meat of “Purple Rain” itself is quite short: a few stanzas about finding oneself in need of rebirth and renewal, and a few titular choruses about seeking the same within the acid wash of some Prince-flavored, nuclear-holocaust-type weather. Taking this part on as a karaoke pick is a good bet, because, like any solid choice, it is easier to belt out than one would assume, replete with a James Brown caliber freak-out (“Baby I know, I know times are changin’!”). While many karaoke versions will end here, in Prince’s signature extended play, a wanktastic guitar solo gives way to a sweet series of “woo-ooh”s from the Purple One. This is your moment to shine. If you can throw your throat into the falsetto wilds and come out unscathed, you will have sufficiently brought the house down. And if you did so while still on your knees, you will, in that moment, become Legend.
Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”/Reba McEntire, “Fancy”
If you’ve got a flair for the dramatic and a pretty impressive vocal range, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is the perfect karaoke tune. Just make sure to sing the Bonnie Tyler bits and not get distracted by the seductive back-up singers. This song has plenty of vocal downtime, though, so you better have some kind of stage show to bring along with it. I suggest incredibly overstated hand gestures and facial expressions to demonstrate how sad you are that now there’s only love in the dark.
If you’re in the South, the likelihood of a Reba McEntire tune being on the karaoke line-up is almost certain. “Fancy,” the song about a poor hooker who makes it big, is hilariously dramatic, and who doesn’t love to get into that really intense chorus? If you happen to have a red dress with velvet trimming that fits you well, you could wear that for an even more dramatic effect. This isn’t a song that is easy to sing at karaoke, but it is always, always hilarious. “Fancy” is also guaranteed to bring down the house should you find yourself singing at a gay bar or honky-tonk.
Len, “Steal My Sunshine”
I’ve done karaoke one time in my life, and it was only to say that I had done it, because the whole concept frankly terrifies me. The alcohol didn’t help, the fact that I was in a strange city where nobody but a trusted friend would see me didn’t help. It doesn’t even make sense, because I’m not a terrible singer, but there’s something about it that just renders me immobile. If I ever get captured by villains who want to extract information by torture, I would advise them to set me up in front of a large audience with a microphone and a karaoke machine—I’ll fold like a cheap suit. Anyway, the one time I bit the bullet, my song of choice was “Steal My Sunshine” by Len. It was incredibly awkward.
Georgia Satellites, “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”
The fatal flaw of any karaoke outing is spending the whole night flipping through the binder full of options. Not only is that a waste of time, all the choices will psych you out. You’ve gotta have that old reliable stand-by song. For me, it’s “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by the Georgia Satellites. The last time I did karaoke, it was a song everyone knew, but had forgotten about, so the opening guitar riff gets the room going. Plus, Dan Bairns wasn’t exactly Pavarotti, so you have a certain amount of leeway as a singer. The one drawback is figuring out what to do during the guitar solo: do you play air guitar? Dance? (Haha, no.) Leer Baird-like at the crowd? There’s no right answer.
Quad City DJ’s – C’Mon ‘N Ride It (The Train)
I’m not going to lie, this song has a high degree of difficulty and I can’t recommend it for everyone. If you think you’re game, there are two ways to execute it effectively. The first and most traditional requires you to be drunk enough to be comfortable with the fact you’re performing a Quad City DJ’s song in public, but sober enough to keep up with the hyper-energetic verses and, ideally, the dance moves that accompany them. This isn’t “Kiss From a Rose”; you’re not going to be able to get by on your vocal ability alone. Consult the music video for stage movement ideas (it’s a treasure trove), but at the very least you’re going to need to incorporate miming a conductor pulling a train whistle, as well as bending both elbows at a 45-degree angle and churning your arms in the motion of a coupling rod.
The second way to perform this involves being too drunk to be held accountable for your actions socially, and way too drunk to have any hope of pulling off the technical steps outlined above. If you can’t execute the first option, the performance needs to be as sloppy as possible so that the song’s rampant enthusiasm contrasts starkly with your own lack of flow and motor skills, producing a comedic effect. No, you have no chance of nailing any of the verses or dance moves, but don’t be mistaken; you still need to attempt to nail them. Confidence is just as crucial, but in this case it’s your incompetence that will lead to karaoke gold. Even if you can only get out a few “woo-woos” and train whistle pulls, the crowd will respect your effort and bask in their own memories of this Jock Jams-era classic.
Nicki Minaj, “Monster” verse
So this karaoke scenario has never actually happened, but I’ve rehearsed it so many times it’s basically reality at this point. I imagine my male friends embarrassing themselves trying to rap the Rick Ross, Jay-Z and Kanye verses, like in the Odd Future “Oldie” video, egging each other on in the background, maybe sans water guns. I’m sitting at the bar, filing my nails and rolling my eyes. Someone needs to show these dudes who’s boss, you know, “You could be the (karaoke) king but watch the queen conquer.” I push one of the dudes, probably whoever is singing Kanye’s parts because I’m about to murder his track, into a chair. I tell him what’s about to go down, with equally intense eye contact and diction. By, “So let me get this straight, wait, I’m the Rookie?,” I am bubblegum Nicki in a pink wig, coyly confronting sexism, “Just killed another career, it’s a mild day.” As the intensity builds, I embrace my inner Nicki-monster, slowly becoming unhinged before roaring out the final verse. The best parts of “Monster” are clearly Nicki’s rapid-fire character shifts and delivery, making it a blast to perform. Showing up the boys doesn’t hurt either.
Waylon Jennings, “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean”
I’ll be honest: By the time I’m drunk enough to want to get up on a stage and caterwaul into a microphone, I’m usually about two drinks away from getting into trouble. On those usually fateful nights, I always find myself coming back to the same song. It’s a low, slow number, one you can swagger and sway through. Waylon knew a thing or two about long nights and cheap whiskey, and his boozy drawl is immensely satisfying to try and imitate when you’re three sheets to the wind. “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” isn’t the biggest crowd-pleaser, but there are always a few older guys propping up the bar who perk up when they hear the first line. That’s okay with me; I’d rather hang out with them than with that nerd who always seems to appear and determinedly fight his way though a Pantera song.
Hall and Oates, “Sara Smile”
The ultimate goal for this song is to get someone to cry based on your performance. Very often, this someone is me. “Sara Smile” is definitely in my top 10 love songs of all time; I cannot listen to it less than twice. It’s a slower jam for karaoke, but perfect for serenading all of your friends and showing off some killer falsetto. The track, written in the late ‘70s for Daryl Hall’s longtime partner and writing collaborator Sara Allen, is pure booty-shaking music and pure sweetness. Hall may have broken up with Allen after decades together, but since he still considers “Sara Smile” one of his favorites he’s ever written, it’s almost like their love really does last forever. It is around the second chorus of the song when I remember this fact, and I begin to get a little weepy. It is also the point when I belt it out. When looking for bonus points, I’ll grab someone’s hand and maintain full, intense eye contact: “It’s you and me forever.”
Harvey Danger, “Flagpole Sitta”
There are a few tenets to a good karaoke song: reliability, familiarity, and ease. These rules mostly only apply to those of us who can’t sing to save our lives, but are also the same characteristics of Irish pub songs, and it seems to work for them. Harvey Danger is a band only known to a few of us born in a certain time period (or those Peep Show obsessive folk) but their single, “Flagpole Sitta,” seems to resonate with a wider audience. We probably have American Pie to thank for that. The song exists in a realm unique to it: It’s high energy power pop-punk, but it doesn’t feel as silly as doing “Teenage Dirtbag” in a room of adults (this coming from an actual Wheatus fan.) “If you’re bored then you’re boring” might also be the most important line of all time, too.
Will Smith, “Miami”
I have a friend who’s always getting a group together for karaoke in Koreatown, so I’ve actually ended up doing karaoke often enough to have developed a philosophy about it. To me, the most important thing to remember is that when you pick a song, you’re also playing DJ for the entire room. This can be tricky if you don’t know everybody there that well, but I’ve learned you can’t go wrong with nostalgia. I always do something by Will Smith. He raps slowly enough for me to keep up (I’ve learned the hard way that this is not an area where I can afford to be prideful), and he keeps it clean. Plus, I get to remind everyone of Will Smith’s musical career. I’m also down with Mindy Kaling’s tip to sing a song with a section that’s in another language, so I usually go for “Miami.” Bienvenidos a Miami!
Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”
“Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen is my all-out, spirited belter. I bust out my best Boss impression every time, complete with a raised hand for the added romantic-runaway feel. If it’s the right setting, I also do “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias and blur the line between earnestness and satire. There’s always at least a couple people willing to slow-dance to that. Pro-tip: For the full effect, wear a shirt with buttons and then unbutton most of them.
Now it’s your turn. Let us know your go-to karaoke songs in the comments below.