Dear readers, it’s time to come clean. Sure, by day I’m Drew, prolific album reviewer and Popblerd contributor; but at night, I put my DJ cap on, and provide karaoke to the masses with the same mixture of good-natured pomposity, mild music snobbery, and hit-or-miss humor that you see in these pages every day. I used to be a karaoke fiend, searching for the best seedy spots to score applause and compliments, but I’ve moved on to hosting; which, like getting sober and then working as a bartender, means that you’ve got one thing that you want to do, but you’ll just have to settle for watching everybody else do it.
Karaoke, derived from the Japanese word for “I drank too much tonight”, isn’t necessarily for professionals. While it’s usually a pleasant surprise to hear a good singer take the mic amidst the sea of fair-to-awful performances, the practice was conceived as a venue for those who would in theory like to be able to sing, but can’t. Bring me your tone-deaf, your off-rhythm, your drunken masses yearning to break free (and possibly dance awkwardly) – karaoke is fair game.
But, alas. Even knowing that karaoke doles out minor four-minute chunks of fame for the vocally challenged, certain songs become too much to bear. This could be due to their ubiquity. This could be due to the song in question being, simply, a bad song. This could even be due to the vocal performance; there’s a certain margin of error built in to the fact that you’re singing karaoke (which is why I do not, and will never, tolerate booing), but some songs are so challenging that the vocals bypass “charmingly bad” altogether and land squarely in “ear-shattering wail” territory. No songs will be included on the forthcoming list based on a dismissive “nobody can sing it”, but that may be a factor. (“Summer Nights” and “Sweet Caroline” push alarming levels of frequency in karaoke-land, but both are short and not particularly difficult to sing, thus resulting in a “ho-hum” instead of a “shoot me now”.)
Karaoke, I love you dearly. You feed me. You introduce me to new friends every day. You provide me with ample opportunity to indulge the sides of me that want to be either a stage performer or a stand-up comedian. You soothe my burning need for attention. But I just have a few issues, and today, we’re going to take a look at the 15 Most Horrifying Karaoke Songs of All Time.
15. Creed, “With Arms Wide Open”
In 2011, we know Creed as that one band that people make fun of when they’re not busy making fun of Nickelback. Their massive 2000 single “With Arms Wide Open” boasts levels of mawkishness that would embarrass the dude from Live; while it lends itself well to a guttural Stapp impression, that gimmick, much like the gimmick of building a performance around singing “Come Sail Away” entirely in an Eric Cartman voice or inserting tiring reams of profanity Old School-style into “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, isn’t enough to base your performance on. Whether sung facetiously or earnestly, one thing holds true: “With Arms Wide Open” is a momentum-killer, and even if you sing it well, the odds that we’re all making fun of you for choosing a Creed song on purpose are overwhelming. Watch the video and see how long you can go without wanting to punch him in the nuts.
14. Adele, “Someone Like You”
This one is new for 2011; in the wake of the UK songbird’s newfound popularity, a tidal wave of ladies have stepped up to the plate, confident that they can keep up with the deep wellspring of hurt and regret Adele uncorks on this hugely popular piano ballad. The song itself is beautiful, mind you – but in its correct context. Much like Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” – another sparse, heart-tugging ballad that gets a disconcerting amount of karaoke play – it’s bound to stop a fun, raucous night dead in its tracks. Additionally, the tone of the song pretty much requires a deadly serious vocal performance, and really, even if every note is perfect, isn’t an incredibly serious karaoke singer kind of annoying by nature?
13. Bon Jovi, “Livin’ on a Prayer”
Look, it’s not that I have a problem with my Jersey brethren of Bon Jovi. They write big, dumb, hooky pop songs, and they’re catchy as balls more often than not. There’s just something a bit irksome about this being the ’80s rock anthem of choice among karaoke singers, considering that both the 80’s and Bon Jovi have yielded their fair share of big rock anthems. Its ubiquity – especially in the face of about a million and thirty songs that could do the job faster – is its downfall, as is the impossibly high pitch of its key change, which immediately needs to be screeched at a volume capable of creating feedback and bursting eardrums bar-wide.
12. “Wannabe,” Spice Girls
11. “It’s Raining Men,” The Weather Girls
Lumped together for their dark-overlord like power to brainwash ostensibly sane women into huddling, in groups of fourteen, around two mikes and shouting would-be anthems of female empowerment – surely a futile task, as such displays certainly make most spectators respect women a little less – these two numbers make me question my decision to not institute a two-singer maximum. It’s not that the songs are any better done solo; they’re just a little less earsplitting that way, and a bit less likely to result in property damage due to wild drunken dancing. Really, the only purpose these two songs serve – other than to illustrate that the ladies in question don’t know enough about girl power to choose a song from a respectable female artist – is to illustrate to all the males in the house the most intoxicated ladies in the building, often arranged with the drunkest and thus most likely to make a poor decision that night front and center, and fanning outward from there, like a slutty Darwin chart for creepers.
10. Vanilla Ice, “Ice Ice Baby”
Allow me to paint you a picture. The fratboy sits at the bar all night, nursing a series of light beers. His dastardly plan to woo the bartender with his perfectly-spiked hair and extra-medium Affliction tee seems to have soured the moment he mustered up the courage to ask “so, uh, what does your boyfriend think about you working here?” Frantic, he glances at his phone – we’ve barely got an hour left before last call, and he still doesn’t have anyone penciled in for a shameful walk home in last night’s clothes tomorrow morning. As the karaoke reaches a fever pitch – that pretty bartender is flirtatiously touching her hair as she talks to the smooth black gentleman who just sang that Maxwell song so perfectly – it’s pretty clear that there’s one thing he’s gotta do. Karaoke is going to be the answer, and in the absence of vocal talent, an ironic rendition of a cheese-rap classic is going to have to suffice. His drunken muse tells him, “everyone loves Vanilla Ice, seriously! And he’s white just like you, so timing and meter won’t be a problem – you just have to read the words off the screen!” He takes the mic, and that “Under Pressure”-nicked bassline kicks in. “All right, STOP! Collaborate and listen! Ice is back–” And then, words that aren’t in the title scrawl across the screen at a pace too fast for his tiny brain to handle. He finishes the song in an unintelligible mumble, and leaves the stage, humbled that he was conquered by the least respected rapper of all time, incredulous that the tune wasn’t a panty-dropper of “Love TKO” proportions, and fairly certain in the knowledge that next week, he’ll probably do it again. Maybe next week, he’ll do Eminem – after all, he’s a white rapper as well. What could possibly go wrong?
9. Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Simple Man”
Because when you need to prove to an entire bar that you’re the southernist, rootin’-est, tootin’-est, Bud-swillin’-est, gun-totin’-est, mullet-rockin’-est, Confederacy-lovin’-est, sleeves-optional-est, alpha-male-est dude in the building, your bearded pals in Lynyrd Skynyrd will never let you down. Unfortunately, when you need to project that your tastes run deeper than the single most basic, over-respected classic rock band in existence, Lynyrd Skynyrd are your mortal enemy. And when you need to demonstrate that you’re so good that you can hit the soaring chorus of “Simple Man”, you’re summarily humiliated – and, in the process, you’ve implied to the crowd that you listen to and enjoy the music of Shinedown, so congrats on that.
8. Buckcherry, “Crazy Bitch”
It’s not that Buckcherry are a bad band, although, as a side note, Buckcherry are just awful. It’s not the fact that Buckcherry’s raucous rocker may possibly be the most lyrically appalling rock song to achieve moderate popularity in the past decade or so, taking the freewheeling decadence of Motley Crue and juicing it with superfluous f-bombs and a shockingly backwards attitude towards sex. It’s not that it’s one of the most musically stagnant rock songs ever, boasting all of the dynamic excitement of a Hinder jam. It’s not that it boasts all the lyrical charm of a leering date rapist. It’s not that folks who sing this song seem to be incapable of self-censorship, the brash number rendering their brains incapable of remembering that there’s a no-profanity provision at the establishment they’re at. It’s not that women sing this song slightly more often than men, and that the brain can’t really keep out the nagging insistence that they’re simply not in on the joke. Nope, it’s not any of these things that justifies the inclusion of “Crazy Bitch” on this list… it’s all of them.
7. Sir Mix-a-Lot, “Baby Got Back”
Let’s forget for a moment that the fact that this song is so popular is, in and of itself, an affront to hip-hop – it not only marginalizes the genre to this one less-than-sterling representative, but is so ubiquitous in karaoke bars that people who sing it clearly reduce hip-hop in their minds to, simply, being able to read words off a screen, not taking into account rhythm and timing. Even without those pretty severe affronts to all that is good, “Baby Got Back” simply suffers from two seemingly opposing ideals: 1.) It is performed with alarming frequency, and 2.) everyone who sings it is under the impression that they’re doing something original, and uproarious. Even more egregious: the fact that every white frat boy who has ever performed this has somehow, in the back of their minds, convinced themselves that they are going to achieve some level of street cred by doing it. Also, nobody ever seems to be able to keep up with Mix’s flow past “I like big butts and I cannot lie”, until the infamous anaconda line is shouted out in perfect time amidst a series of murmurs. “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon” is the “Leh! Nerd! Bern! Stein!” of rap.
6. Meat Loaf, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light”
Now, in my job as karaoke host, I often find myself approached to perform duets by singers unable to find a suitable singing partner. I almost always oblige, regardless of whether or not I like the song, because it seems conducive to return business – I want singers to know that as long as I’m running the show, they’ll always have a Jay-Z to their Beyonce, a Richie to their Ross, a Celine to their Barbra (yup, I’ve gone there), even a Rock to their Crow. “Paradise” is always a tricky proposition, though – invariably, it is always assumed that as the host, I’m the most capable of recreating old-school, 900-pound Meat Loaf’s robust tenor. I am not up to the task, sadly – I know my limitations as a vocalist – and so I have to refuse, because while I’m game for being foolish for the masses, this is just a song that, when botched, gives off an odious “I am a TERRIBLE singer, and here’s why” vibe, and as host, I wanna exhibit a little vocal finesse. The problem is that my refusal doesn’t result in the song being stricken from the record – it inevitably results in someone even worse than myself performing it… FOR NINE STRAIGHT MINUTES. It leaves me exhausted and waiting for the end of time, so I can end my time with “Paradise By the Dashboard Light”.
5. Led Zeppelin, “Stairway To Heaven”
For reasons unknown, “Stairway To Heaven” has seen a sudden and alarming uptick in karaoke popularity over the past year or so, at least around my neck of the woods. I’m not sure why – I can’t think of any popular entertainment that would have thrust this little ditty, “Don’t Stop Believin'”-style, back into the national lexicon – but whatever the case, it needs to stop. And here’s why: well, wait, I don’t really need to go into why, do I? I mean, can we all agree that it’s painfully obvious why “Stairway To Heaven” is not an acceptable karaoke song? Okay, good. Let’s move along.
4. Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
Less of a song than it is simply a vessel for semi-pretty girls to wail words over music, Carrie Underwood’s brassy country anthem – which, if you’ve read my Jukebox From Hell piece on it, you’ll notice serves the dual purpose of actually reinforcing the stereotype of women as perpetually neurotic and reactionary – is a bad song. Unfortunately, whether the singer in question can actually hit Carrie’s notes is immaterial; there’s nothing more irksome than seeing this song sang with such fiery indignation, all the while knowing that they’re not in on the joke, and setting their own gender back to, at least, the puritanical 50s.
3. Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Now, lest you think that I have something against Freddie Mercury and the boys, let me shoot you a few quick facts: I own every Queen album. I adore every Queen album. “Under Pressure,” while only half attributed to Queen, is the pop song I would crown my favorite if I absolutely had to make such a decision; when faced with the similar task of choosing the greatest frontman of all time, Freddie Mercury would be my pick. And in lieu of the traditional wedding march, my wife walked down the aisle to a piano rendition of “Somebody To Love”. Now, lest you think that I consider Queen simply off-limits for karaoke – something akin to artistic sacrilege – consider not only that I’ve heard Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z, and Prince mangled time and time again at karaoke, but that I’ve happily partaken in this mangling myself. No, “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t make the list because it shouldn’t be touched; “Bohemian Rhapsody” makes the list because it’s incredibly long for a karaoke song, and commits the cardinal sin of forcing singers to warble uncontrollably and shrilly for ITS ENTIRE DURATION. And in multiple parts? No thank you. Yeah, I saw Wayne’s World too – time to let “Bohemian Rhapsody” go.
2. Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, “Picture”
Let’s not kid ourselves: “Picture” is a popular karaoke song because it is an incredibly easy song. The pacing is languid, the melody is obvious, and there’s not a thing challenging about the vocal parts. But what makes it a bad karaoke song, you ask? After all, isn’t the fact that “Picture” is incredibly easy conducive to a nice, non-shriek-y listen? In theory, yes. In practice, it sounds like a duet between two unflushed turds scraping together from time to time. Ubiquity and boredom are the death of this cute little number – the alarming frequency with which it’s performed (seriously, go out to a karaoke bar anywhere and see how long you can go without hearing it) and its turgid, snail-like pace make this the karaoke world’s single most popular momentum-killer. And also Kid Rock looks like a redneck Earthworm Jim, so… so there’s that.
1. Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin'”
Well, we’ve arrived, kiddos – the top of the list, the bane of my karaoke existence, and the single most popular karaoke song in my books by a long, long shot. Let it be known that this is number one with a bullet – the other fourteen of these songs are mere annoyances by comparison. “Don’t Stop Believin'” isn’t an annoyance – it is an offense. It is the one thing you can possibly do in this universe that will literally make me hate you as a person. Everything I’ve mentioned about songs that bug me applies here: ubiquity, a song delivered in such a high register that it requires tuneless (and LOUD… so loud) caterwauling to sing, a song that literally has never been sung well by anyone that hasn’t fronted Journey, a song that’s just not a good song, a song that serious karaoke singers and douchey frat boys and bar skanks and raging alcoholics ALL have in common. The cultural emergence of “Don’t Stop Believin'” is the single worst thing to happen to popular culture this past decade, and bear in mind, that is the decade that also gave us “The Jersey Shore”, Dane Cook, Ke$ha, “Flava of Love”, William Hung, “What What (In the Butt)”, John and Kate Gosselin and their endless parade of living paychecks, Sarah Palin, and the unnecessary 3D-ing of every movie ever made ever. In people’s warped perspectives, this is the song that symbolizes faux-ironic 80s cheese. It’s the song that people sing to “get the crowd going” (going where? out the door?). It’s the song that people sing because it’s gonna be totally hilarious and oh em gee I can’t believe I thought to actually SING that, except that everybody thinks that so it’s never hilarious or original and also everybody hates you DREW SMASH.
Ahem. Let me collect myself here: my point is, have a thought, have an original thought for once. I am obligated to allow you to sing what you want to sing, this much is true. And there’s a lot of leeway I’ll give you in terms of how much I will judge you for that song. But The Song That Shall Not Be Named? That, dear friends, is the unforgivable sin of karaoke.
With that, I turn it over to you guys. Any karaoke fans out there in Popblerd-land? What do you sing, and what really crawls in your butthole? Am I off-base with my 15 Horrifying Karaoke Songs? Inquiring DJs, after all, want to know.
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