Article by Tim King
Chinese-style karaoke, known affectionately by the confusing acronym “KTV,” is one of the most ubiquitous parts of local culture. Many of us foreigners come here from places that don’t karaoke so hard, but no matter who we are or what we’re doing here, we’ve inevitably been stuffed into that tiny, dark room with a group of people that want nothing more than to force us to sing. Then comes the hard part.
Imagine for a second that you’re there, sitting in front of the glowing console, staring at it, hoping those simplified hieroglyphs will start to make sense (or that enough aimless tapping will get you to the foreign songs). Suddenly, you’re faced with one of the most difficult decisions any expat in China will ever face: “What song do I sing?” Thousands of tracks are at your disposal, and no matter what you pick, you will have to tell everyone “This one is me” when it comes on. You will be judged, laowai, so here’s how they will be judging you and how you can use this sage knowledge to become a KTV champion.
A song you only know the chorus of
The English-language section of any KTV’s song list can be a confusing and unforgiving place. Songs might not appear with the correct artist, for one. Maybe you can’t find the singer you’re looking for. Maybe you found that singer and, in the dozen songs listed, one of the most popular, the one you actually know, is perplexingly absent. So, you take a deep breath and jab hopefully at the screen at a song you kind of know, hoping that others in the room like it and will help you pick up the slack. Unfortunately, there’s a 95% chance that everyone else only knows the chorus as well. That’s just how those songs are. You might try to keep up, but those pesky verses have way more lyrics than you realized. Don’t feel bad, you gave it your best shot, and that’s commendable. Just have the wisdom to know when to tell your companions to skip to the next track.
Example songs: “Sex on Fire” by Kings of Leon, “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry, “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne
A song by a singer with a legendary voice
Professional singers are always good, but only occasionally are some of them amazing. Sometimes it’s easy to pick out when an artist is an incredible singer, other times it’s a bit more subtle and you realize your mistake shortly after starting. When you go for one of those songs sung by someone with a mythic set of pipes, you’re either one of two things: very brave, or very stupid. The key changes and vocal acrobatics are enough to destroy any would-be KTV pop star, but when that sustained high note comes, your voice starts cracking like you’re going through a second puberty. When you’re in this situation, it’s a “go big or go home” kind of ordeal—but if you go too big, it could be your last song of the night.
Example songs: “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler, anything Michael Jackson.
Something secretly offensive
Some artists are wordsmith geniuses that can take an aspect of the human experience and condense it into an impossibly clever, nearly perfect couplet. Other artists use this talent to code their bars with comparatively filthy or offensive observations. You’ll usually get these ones past your Chinese acquaintances, but some are so shrewd that even native speakers don’t realize what the hell is going on. Just keep your composure and keep singing—if you act like nothing is wrong, you’ll probably be able to avoid having a conversation about what “bluffin’ with my muffin” means when you’re done.
Example songs: “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga, “My Sharona” by the Knack, “Roxanne” by the Police
Something overtly offensive
And some songwriters just say “screw subtext” and let it all hang out. The lyrics are graphic, or peppered with an army’s worth of F-bombs, and everyone starts getting that cringing, rigid, fight-or-flight response, like a golden retriever that’s just heard a dog whistle. You’ve chosen one of these songs for one of a couple of reasons: you didn’t really know anything but the chorus (see the first entry in this list), you’ve incorrectly figured that the song was secretly offensive (see previous entry), or you just don’t give one single solitary shit about what anyone in the room thinks. Hey, some people just want to watch the world burn, you know?
Example songs: “F— You” by Cee-lo Green, “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj, “Runaway” by Kanye West
Any Chinese Song
Okay, enough, we get it, you speak more Chinese than the rest of us. Congratulations.
A Torch Song
Torch songs, if you’re not familiar with the term, are songs about unrequited love. The problem there is that some torch songs are among the catchiest earworms ever produced. They come in many forms, but if poorly deployed, they can kill the mood in your KTV booth, or potentially worse, send a lot of confusing signals to the person you’re pointing at when you scream “Why can’t you see/You belong with me?”
Example songs: “You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift, “Superstar” by the Carpenters, “Someone Like You” by Adele
Any rock song
Not all of us are down with pop music, and that’s okay. The pantheon of rock is vast and varied, and surprisingly well represented at most KTVs. However, with that many choices available, your decision could either bring the house down with a big rock star sing-along or stop the party dead in its tracks. Just remember these handy tips and you’ll be fine: screaming scares normal people, no one actually likes the solo from “Hotel California,” no one wants to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” before their fourth drink and no one, I repeat, NO ONE wants to see your lame ass play air guitar.
Example songs: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath, “The Pretender” by the Foo Fighters
Remember people, KTV is supposed to be fun, not just for you but for everyone. Yeah, I’m talking to you, guy who keeps skipping his songs to the top. Karaoke responsibly.
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease Magazine and can karaoke all the parts to “Ayo Technology” like a boss. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org