I enjoy a quality karaoke performance more than most. Singing in public is a difficult task for the body and psyche.
If you nail a version of “Strawberry Wine” or “Someone Like You,” I will stand and applaud with the rest of the drunks at the bar.
Some take karaoke seriously, which is a terrible mistake. Do you think you’re about to get “discovered” by a talent-hungry music rep with your warbling performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody”? No. The most you can expect is a wink and nod from the old guy at the bar who has mastered versions of Johnny Cash’s greatest hits.
My goal with karaoke is to offer memorable performances rather than quality performances. A lot of people can carry a tune and get through a song with ease—that’s relatively easy—but not many are willing to commit to a disturbing character that could potentially ruin a song for an entire audience. It’s an opportunity to force an otherwise-unsuspecting audience to watch something ridiculous and admittedly unsettling.
The best tool I’ve found is the Tom Waits application. Essentially, I try to find songs that are unlikely to be performed by Tom Waits, the gravelly voiced beatnik turned highly avant-garde performer, and apply a Waitsian approach.
Here is an example of Waits at his best:
His voice is bluesy and harsh … and a little wet, if that makes sense. He sounds as if his tongue is on fire and flailing about his mouth. Yet you can still understand every word. His range is incredible—see “Dirt in the Ground”—and each performance is somehow both funny and scary at the same time. I love that.
Karaoke is stupid-fun. The below songs are my favorite songs to perform whenever someone gives me a microphone and the option. I’ll explain why they work as Waits covers. Invite me out to sing karaoke and we’ll mess with people.
Whitney Houston, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”
This is my favorite karaoke song to perform as Tom Waits. It has everything from the surprise element to the catchy chorus. I always ask the DJ to knock it down by a few octaves so I can really dig in with the guttural growls. It’s also a ridiculous song for a bearded chubby guy to bellow at a Mexican restaurant. The bridge features a nice call-and-response for the audience. I can’t get enough of this song, and I hope I ruin it for you forever.
Elton John, “Circle of Life”
Everybody knows this song, so success is already in the cards before you sing the first note. I’ve found that a straight Elton John impression works best for the verses, saving the Tom Waits part for the booming chorus. You can let it all out after the final verse, spitting and shaking as the crowd screams or management asks you to leave. Swallow the mic on this one. People know this song, so you don’t have to worry as much about enunciation.
Mariah Carey, “Always Be My Baby”
This song goes from a Hallmark card innocent message to a very creepy, stalkerish song when slowed down and sung like Tom Waits. “Boy, don’t you know you can’t escape me because you’ll always be my baby?” is not a phrase you want to hear from a drunken demon. The “dooby doop doops” add to the silly aspect of the song. The key change at the end can be hard on the voice if you don’t have it knocked down to a suitable range.
Divinyls, “I Touch Myself”
It’s even creepier than Mariah Carey, so I encourage you to try this one out on a crowd. On the surface, “I Touch Myself” is a song about masturbation. It’s also a song about masturbation in the middle and at the core: “When I think about you, I touch myself.” Now, slow this one down and magic happens. Suddenly, the Dm and Bb chords become the soundtrack to an underwater true crime documentary. The verses are deliberate and unapologetically sinister: “Wheeen I thiiiink aaaabout yoooooou …. I toooooooouch myyyyseeeelf.” I did this song once at a local country bar, and people did not enjoy it. The karaoke DJ pulled the plug on the performance, and my name didn’t get called again the rest of the night. That’s exactly what I’d hoped would happen.
Kim Carnes, “Bette Davis Eyes”
I mean, Kim Carnes didn’t even sing this song well because it’s a hard song to sing. It’s one of those songs that requires you to sing at the top of your range and stretch the vocal cords into almost a squeak. Fortunately, a Tom Waits version doesn’t have to be sung perfectly. Once again, I have the DJ slow it down a bit (not too much), and I start the song much lower. The chorus is still high, but you can’t slow it down much because it’s already a relatively slow song. Brad Roberts, lead singer of Crash Test Dummies, does a great version of the song. Listen here.
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