It's Etiquette Week at SFist, in which SFist's editors dole out some prescriptive advice for how to behave in this city we all share in order not to overly annoy, offend, or otherwise piss off your fellow citizens. Please read carefully.
Karaoke, which is undeniably an art, is also, I would argue, something of a science. Practiced according to a few principles, anyone is more than capable of putting on a show that will delight friends and amuse strangers. While San Francisco is host to plenty of Broadway castaways and torch singers still carrying on with their craft, don't be intimidated by a couple of ringers. It shouldn't take the best pipes in the room or the best ear — although a general sense of pitch would be nice — to put your name in.
If you're looking to get your feet wet for the first time, or if you really do suffer from stage fright that can't be cured by the two drink minimum at The Mint, then angle to book a private room, such as those at YamaSho or Pandora. There, the rules don't apply — have at it, kid. But if you're doing karaoke at a bar, in front of people you don't know, with a roaming karaoke DJ (or KJ) at a bar or dedicated karaoke joint, be advised:
The most important thing about karaoke happens before you get on the mic. The simple rule here is to choose a song you know and love. Also, if it isn't in the book, they don't have it, or don't want you to do it, or wouldn't want you to if they did, so no need to inquire.
From there, ask yourself this: Will anyone else enjoy this song? Although Karaoke therapy is real and I definitely am a practitioner, you're not in front of a group just for your own good. You want to have fun — do pick a fun song! — and let others share in it. Don't do that System of a Down song you, for whatever reason, privately cherish. Instead, lean toward a crowd-pleaser.
Remember, you'll be in the crowd most of the night — that's how this arrangement works. That might actually be the guiding principle for all of this! So imagine picking a song that people would like even if you had a coughing fit onstage, just because it's a good song.
Furthermore, a song is best if you're used to singing it — belting it out in the car or shower — and know most of the words already. Sure, you'll have a teleprompter with the words, but familiarity is key.
Also, please, you poor souls, don't do a ballad unless you've really got the chops or are going to fake it so well that everyone is roaring. No one wants to hear you do Whitney if you don't actually enjoy singing.
Final note on song choice, but this is huge and could be its own post: Don't do a song that you even suspect might be overdone, and absolutely do not do a song that has already been done that evening. Don't do "Semi-Charmed Life." Don't do "Summer Nights." Don't do "Hotel California." Don't do “Baby Got Back.” And, please do stop believin', because you better not do "Don't Stop Believing." The list goes on (see you in the comments).
Tip Your KJ/DJ
You absolutely must tip when you put in a song choice, every time you sing. After you're done singing, no need to tip because you already did. And with your tip, more is more. While I'm not advocating bribery, nor am I saying that the fine folks making karaoke happen are open to it, I'm saying that a five is worth more than a one. That said, should you put in a $20 and expect to be up next? You should not.
Bust a Move
Secret's out: Karaoke is not about singing. It's about interpreting or performing a song. So please, by all means, get into it! Do a couple moves — however poor your dancing is, it all adds to the comedy that makes karaoke great. Karaoke should, in my strong opinion, be funny, and if not funny, then at least fun.
Don't Hog The Mic
While many places are explicit about this, regardless of where you are, don't put your name in for more than one song at a time. This includes a song for which you are part of a couple or group.
More controversially, it's my opinion that you should not do more than two songs at a karaoke session. Believe me, we get it after two numbers — you're a diva. Unless literally no one else, however abominable, is asking to get on the mic, don't sing that third song! Think of retiring after two as going out on a **high note**.
Don't Do A Group Song Where You All Sing Every Part
While your drunk friend group will certainly enjoy getting up together for that group rendition of "Sweet Caroline," don't be that group. This really goes back to that principle about knowing and playing to your audience. If you think you can divide up parts or verses, by all means, that might be fun to watch. But everyone, and usually one person louder or more confidently than the rest, belting into one mic? That's only fun for those onstage.
Also, don't do "Sweet Caroline." It's a disgusting song choice punishable by a one-way-trip back to Boston.
Country and Rap?
Country songs and rap songs are totally kosher, but I'm grouping them together here because they're sometimes criticized. One note, though re: Country — if the song is a sad song, ask yourself why are you doing this to everyone at a bar. Many country songs are in fact sad, so just think on that. And also a note for rap: Lots of people know all the words to lots of rap songs, so that alone will not inspire or impress. Also, consider that the song you're thinking of doing might have been a fun, edgy piece of music when Sugarhill Gang performed it, but in the mouth of a twentysomething white boy in 2016, it is very strange, uncool, and wrong.
Songs by Blondie, Bowie, Prince, Lionel Richie, and Harry Belafonte are almost always good. Songs that scream 1980s are usually good. And the all-time best karaoke song is "Return of the Mack" by Mark Morrison. The end.