In the early days of karaoke in America — say, the Huey ’80s and the Hootie ’90s — the ultimate compliment a singer could get for a good karaoke performance was a standing ovation or a free shot from the bar.
That all changed in 2002. “The new supreme compliment in karaoke is, ‘You should try out for ‘American Idol,’” says Grant Tucker, a veteran karaoke host based in Glendale, Calif. “The show’s provided a new superlative. For singers who are a little more serious about singing but perhaps haven’t studied or wouldn’t think of taking voice lessons, it’s given them a tangible option.”
Not only has “Idol” revolutionized the struggling music business and given Paula Abdul — and the rest of us — something to do two nights a week, it’s shaken up the karaoke scene as well. And by most accounts, the shaking’s been a good thing.
“The theory we’ve had since the inception of karaoke is that everybody loves to sing, even if it’s just in the shower or the car,” says John Bertrand, vice president of the online outlet Express Karaoke. “‘American Idol’ has encouraged people that they can do it as well.” Bertrand knows this because he hears it from his customers every day. “We get comments at least two or three times a day, like ‘Did you see the show last night?’ or ‘I’ve got to practice so I can try out next year.’ The show’s inspired more people to believe in themselves.”
It’s also affected what people sing and just like on the show, song choice is crucial. “‘American Idol’ sometimes inspires me to sing a song that I would not normally consider,” says Chris Humphries, assistant organizer of The Nashville Krazy Karaoke Meetup Group. “I never cared for the original John Lennon version of ‘Imagine’ prior to David Archuleta’s performance, but now I want to add it to my list. I figure if a 16-year-old can learn a new song in a week, I should be able to, too.”
Artists and songs that appear the show see a boost in popularity in the karaoke world as well. “Our biggest ‘Idol’ is Carrie Underwood, hands down,” says Bertrand, adding that established artists like Dolly Parton and Stevie Wonder also sell well after turning up as guest on “Idol.” “We just got a karaoke CD of Daughtry songs and we can’t keep it in stock.”
Trying to become the ‘total package’
In clubs, the “Idol” reverberations are also unmistakable… and occasionally inescapable. “If I ever have to hear that Edwin McCain song ‘I’ll Be’ again, I’ll kill myself,” vows Bruce Daniels, a stand-up comic who hosts a weekly karaoke night at the West Hollywood club Fubar. “That’s the No. 1 song guys sing because of ‘Idol.’”
On a more positive note, thanks to “Idol,” it’s no longer enough for a singer to stare at the screen and hit the notes. They’ve got to strive for what Paula Abdul calls “the total package.” “The show’s encouraged people to get into a song physically and really try to put a packaged performance together,” says Tucker. “It’s not just standing and singing. It’s the movement. It’s dancing. It’s whatever the song entails.”
“I had a guy come in with cat ears and do a song from ‘Cats’ and bounce around the stage,” marvels Daniels. “I’ve had people in mermaid tails doing ‘The Little Mermaid.’ It’s insane. People sing as though there are A&R people in the audience ready, just to discover them. Now, that’s even more so with ‘American Idol.’”
Most karaoke pros agree that if there’s a downside to the “Idol” phenomenon, it’s that it may give some singers false hope that they can be the next Kelly Pickler. “A lot of people that may not be very good think, ‘Oh, I’m going to go try out,’” says Jessica Duarte, who hosts karaoke in the heart of Carly Smithson country, San Diego, Calif. “They get overexcited and they get their hearts broken.”
Duarte knows the drill as she’s auditioned twice herself and didn’t make the cut. “There’s more that goes into trying out than just singing a song,” she says. “People think it’s a lot easier than it actually is.”
“Probably every karaoke spot has one or two people who have tried out and been rejected,” observes Tucker. “The show’s kind of provided a lottery ticket approach singing. For some talented singers, if they were a little more realistic, they might pursue voice lessons or go another route instead of an all-or-nothing approach. But the show has encouraged people to sing and I think that’s the best thing about it.”
Channeling your inner Simon Cowell
Tucker also credits “Idol” with turning karaoke into more of a spectator sport than it was before. “For people who don’t sing but like to watch, the show’s given them a reason to have a drink and stick around for a few hours,” he says. And thanks in large part to a certain Mr. Cowell, they’re a lot more discriminating than they were pre-“Idol.” “The most negative effect is people in the crowd being more Simon than Paula,” says Duarte. “Singers are more nervous of people in the crowd being more critical because sometimes they are.”
First-season also-ran, Ryan Starr found that out the hard way in a surreal life-imitates-“Idol” when she took the stage at Daniels’ club in Hollywood. “She got booed,” says Daniels cringing at the memory. “I tried to squelch it but they still booed her. It was rough.”
Does he offer counseling when the crowds start channeling their inner Simon? “I don’t,” he says regretfully, “but I do offer a shot of vodka. I don’t know if that helps.”
For most die-hard karaoke lovers, it’ll take more than a few well-timed Cowell-isms to keep them of the mic. “Singing to me is therapeutic,” says Jody Robinson, who sings regularly at clubs near her home in Antioch, Tenn. “I don’t care to be involved in an organized religion at this point in my life and where else can you improve your vocal instrument and make friends... all while having a beer? It feels good to sing!”
Somewhere, Paula Abdul is clapping.