The Top 10 Kommandments of Karaoke
By James Winovich
On July 2, 2015
The songs. The laughs. The drinks. That call informing you that there are only 10 minutes left. Karaoke is just good fun. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Japan, I can say with full confidence that you’ve had your share of good times singing at karaoke.
However, I can say with equal confidence that during some of those good times, you encountered some moments that were decidedly not fun. Moments that took away from the room’s energy. Moments when someone just seemed rude. Moments that made you think, “Hmm, maybe karaoke isn’t all that amazing.”
My goal is to put an end to those moments.
I’ve got a list of 10 “Kommandments,” as I’ve chosen to call them, that when implemented, will ensure those un-fun moments happen a lot less frequently. Maybe we’ll have even more fun at karaoke now that everyone knows what to do, and just as importantly, what not to do. For that to happen, though, I’ll need your help to spread the word.
So let’s go over each one.
Note that these rules only apply to casually-assembled groups. If you have a regular group or pairing that has its own rules, these don’t apply to you. I’m sure you were having a lot of fun already, so its okay! That’s the whole idea!
1. Thou shall not choose a song longer than five minutes.
There are plenty of incredible long songs. Some of those songs are the best part of the setlist when your favorite band plays live. But inside that karaoke room, it’s nobody’s concert. It’s a group of people enjoying themselves while singing and listening to songs. So while a five-minute song might start out great and have a good hook, a sense of drag will inevitably rear its ugly head after the third chorus, and people will groan during that extended guitar solo. Be smart and choose a shorter song from the same band, and everyone will be thankful.
2. Though shall not choose a song that nobody knows.
I know. I know that band is awesome. The band you discovered in that Hard-Off on the edge of the city, buried in the bargain bin, only available on vinyl. That band is fantastic. and that song you found is just next-level. But when nobody else knows a song, nobody else sings that song. Nobody else even grooves along with the song. And that’s a surefire way to push the energy right out of that room.
Resist the urge to school people on music you think they’d love during karaoke. Save that for another time.
3. Thou shall not choose a Japanese song when hanging out with only non-speakers.
This one I was most guilty of myself. I know how little payoff there is when you first start studying Japanese, and you’re finally starting to get the hang of it, but have no way of showing it off to your friends. Karaoke seems like the perfect place to show off a cool song and your reading skills at the same time. But just like choosing a song nobody knows, this is a fun-killer if the room doesn’t know the song.
I know you came to Japan to really be in Japan, which means learning and using the language, and I get that and highly recommend it. But I don’t think singing X-Japan with a room full of people who don’t speak Japanese and aren’t trying to learn Japanese is a smart way of accomplishing that goal. If you want to sing Japanese songs, get a group of people also studying Japanese, or go with some Japanese friends!
4. Thou shall not sing on the mic unless requested to do so.
In karaoke, everyone has different styles. Some people stand up and take the stage, others sit and sing relaxed songs, and some barely sing and just wanna dance! One thing these people all have in common, though, is that unless they ask you to join them, they want to sing their songs alone. You might have suspected this, but I’m telling you it’s 99.999% true.
So now that you know that, it’s just common courtesy to let them sing alone, right? Requesting help is as easy as an elbow nudge or holding out the mic, so don’t worry; if they need help, they’ll ask you. Assume that everyone who chooses a song wants to sing it alone, until they let you know otherwise.
5. Thou shall not talk over someone else’s song.
Another common courtesy, that for some reason gets forgotten when microphones and nomihodais are involved, is having loud conversations while other people are singing. I won’t elaborate, because I can’t imagine that I need to. Screaming your next drink order, or asking “When’s the last train?” is fine. Debating the cultural significance of Baby Metal as 21st-century art, not so much.
6. Thou shall not put in two or more songs in a row.
How dare you. Karaoke is a give and take, in the form of singing your own songs and listening to other people sing theirs. Unfortunately, the bigger the group, the greater the number of other people’s songs you’ll have to listen to before it’s your song. But this is a basic rule of karoke.
Breaking this unwritten contract by putting in two (or more???) songs results in really bad vibes at the very least, and a room filled with former karaoke friends at the worst. Listen. Then listen. Then, maybe even listen more. And then sing. Put in one song and pass it along.
7. Thou shall not try to sing louder than the person who chose the song.
It doesn’t matter how badly someone is butchering your “favorite” song. If they chose the song, that means they want to sing it. And if you remember Kommandment 4, unless they request it, they don’t want or need your help. Singing along at normal volume, hitting that tambourine, dancing around, any or all of that is fine. Trying to show everyone how much better you know this song than the singer is absolutely not fine, even without the mic.
8. Thou shall not endlessly mess with the pitch control.
Choose a song and sing it. If you need help, pass someone a mic. If a song just isn’t working out, cut it short. Raising and lowering the pitch until it’s “in your wheelhouse” for half the song is fun for exactly no one, and I know that includes you as well. If you need to change the pitch, set it and live with the consequences. If that means canceling a song midway through, so be it. A better option, though, is usually to get the room to help you finish it anyway!
9. Thou shall not spit on, lick, or swallow the mic.
Yes, this applies to rap songs as well, mini-Eminem. It’s gross. Don’t do it.
10. Thou shall stay in the room while other people are singing their songs.
You listen to songs, you sing songs. Taking out the listening part breaks that unwritten contract, and means that maybe you shouldn’t be at karaoke in the first place. If you just want to chat it up, you can go to a cafe. If you want to explore, you can do that on your own time. It’s important to respect the people who listen to your singing by listening to them when they sing.
Obviously you can take a couple of breaks to get some air or stretch your legs. But if you’re having your friend text you from the room when your song is on deck, you are 100% doing it wrong, and you should either change your behavior or find a new activity.
Well, there they are, ten simple rules that will lead the way to an incredible night of karaoke, and get rid of most of those un-fun moments I alluded to earlier.
If you yourself are a regular rule-breaker when it comes to any of the Kommandments, just stop. Acknowledge to yourself that passing a dripping wet mic isn’t a good idea, and resist the urge to get spitty when you’re rapping. Force yourself to stick around while your fellow singers are belting out their favorites. No one will know why you stopped breaking the Kommandment, but they will be thankful you did.
And if you know someone else who breaks one of these rules, find a way to spread the word. A simple way is by just sending them a link to this post! The only way we can get karaoke rooms across Japan to offer maximum fun is by sharing these ideas and sticking to our Kommandments!
So go forth and spread the word! And have a killer time your next at karaoke night!