Karaoke tips

Two people karaoke at Trader Todd's in Lakeview. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune / March 4, 2014)

You know what I'm sick of? People telling me that singing ability has ANYTHING to do with being good at karaoke. It doesn't.

True, it doesn't hurt to be able to somewhat carry a tune, but you don't need it to truly sell a song.

For the sake of transparency, I'll say that I'm the frontwoman in a cover band, so one might say I have some singing ability. And I do love me some karaoke, but the two don't really go hand in hand for me—or anyone.

Sometimes the really talented singers actually get hated on more than the bad ones. Darin Ortmann, a local KJ, or "karaoke jockey," says good vocalists are often threatened by the competition.

"I think people try to compare themselves like they're in a constant competition," Ortmann said. "I say, 'Relax, no one's getting paid here except me.'"

He's exactly right. So let's all just chill and follow my three easy steps to really rocking a karaoke song:

1. Choose your tune wisely

Go upbeat or go home. Unless you've got the vocal chops of Marvin Gaye, slow songs don't build crowd enthusiasm—and that's really the goal of karaoke, isn't it?

"You never go wrong with up-tempo '80s or '90s these days," Ortmann said. "Do something fun or that the crowd can dance to."

Playing to nostalgia also works well. Theme songs from '90s sitcoms ("Fresh Prince of Bel-Air") have never failed me. Neither has rap, which Ortmann echoed, saying he won a statewide competition singing Outkast's "Hey Ya."

"I always see people who get up there really shy and timid and then when the music starts they belt it out," he said. "It's the Susan Boyle syndrome."

Avoid long instrumental breaks—even the most seasoned performers find them awkward to fill. Ortmann says he usually uses that time to encourage the crowd to drink.

Sing "Piano Man" or "Don't Stop Believin'" ... if you want to be every other karaoke singer in the world. No, but really, don't pick those.

2. Get tipsy, but not fall-down drunk

It's important to be loose, and we all know a little liquid courage goes a long way, but the whole "I'm-better-at-singing-when-I'm-drunk" excuse is a myth. As an audience member, it's hard to support a singer who is slurring words, hiccuping into the mic and stumbling all over the stage. Ortmann recommends one quick shot before hitting the mic, but says to keep in mind that the KJ often buys and brings his or her own equipment—and it ain't cheap.

"If you drop my mic, you are done, and don't bother coming back," Ortmann said. "These are like $150 mics. You're not Chris Rock."

3. Own it

Ever heard the phrase, "dance like no one's watching"? It works for karaoke too. If you get on stage and act like you know you can't sing or you're about to be booed off, the crowd will react accordingly. Fake it till you make it, and eventually you'll start to feel comfortable. Once you are, the audience will be swaying along to your (non-)dulcet tones.


Kristin Samuelson is RedEye's managing editor and lead singer of Chicago cover band HitStorm. Ortmann hosts karaoke at Rockit Burger Bar in Wrigleyville on Fridays and The Four Treys Bar in Roscoe Village on Saturdays.