The intoxicating appeal of online karaoke.

The intoxicating appeal of online karaoke.

The intoxicating appeal of online karaoke.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
July 10 2007 11:56 AM

Karaoke 24/7

The intoxicating appeal of singing online.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

I've always felt uncomfortable living my life online. I have a MySpace profile, but it's empty. I don't blog. And I won't post pictures on Flickr if they feature me or anyone I know. But recently, I learned that I'm not completely opposed to Internet exhibitionism. When it comes to online karaoke, I'm a microphone-hogging fame whore.

SingShot is, basically, a social network for people who think they can carry a tune. When I logged on for the first time, I found a karaoke sanctum where fanatics gushed over one another's songs, made friends (Hi, Vanee!), and thanked their fans with bizarre, New Age-y monologues. The site also tracks each song's vitals—how many times it's recorded, which members sang their own versions, and how those renditions were rated.

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At first, I felt embarrassed for everyone. Who were these people dancing on their Webcams to "Baby Got Back"? Didn't they know anybody could be listening? But these people seemed to want an audience. They craved approval for their interpretations of Phil Collins songs, and they genuinely cared about everyone's opinions. That kind of earnestness seemed to belong to a different decade, a time before Simon Cowell found fame picking apart aspiring singers on primetime TV. All of that sincerity drew me in, and I found a lot of great performances. Each time I finished listening to someone else's performance, SingShot prompted me to record my own. I couldn't resist—I had to know how I'd be judged. Was my singing any good?

I should have been able to answer that question already, since I've long had a weakness for karaoke. I've been known to rouse a bar or two with Bonnie Tyler's power ballad "Total Eclipse of the Heart." I've also been known to bomb at the mic. One drawback of live karaoke is that you only have one chance to nail a performance. There aren't any do-overs when you miss a note or develop a sudden case of musical amnesia. And with so many people watching, it's tough to try out new songs—I can never escape my old standards, like "Fame."

The Web, then, seemed like the ideal venue for working through my issues with karaoke. After all, the Internet's made it easy for people to do all sorts of activities that are awkward in real life: networking, dating, even proposing. On SingShot, where I could scrap imperfect recordings with a click of the mouse, I would become a better performer without risking embarrassment along the way.

And so my online karaoke career began. I started belting out songs—"Heartbreaker," "Independent Women"—that I would've never dared to perform in front of a live audience. I stayed up nights recording take after take, track after track. But to my chagrin, the bleats that came out of my throat sounded feeble. My voice cracked on high notes; I had trouble with rhythm. The main advantage of a karaoke Web site, I learned, is that I could humiliate myself 24 hours a day.

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I soon abandoned hope of mastering Pat Benatar songs—and don't get me started on "Me and Bobby McGee." No way would I let anyone hear these pitiful attempts; I trashed most of them immediately. The only thing more awkward was doing all this on Webcam, which I tried, then destroyed all traces of as quickly as I could. The first songs I uploaded were soft, unthreatening numbers by Dido and Patsy Cline. Next up were Sarah McLachlan and Madonna—again, fine songs but not particularly interesting. I preferred Salt-N-Pepa and Heart to Lilith Fair. But on SingShot, my vocal talents had reduced me to a cliché: an angsty college girl.

I decided that what had worked for thousands of SingShot members would probably suit me, too. I tried my hand at the Beatles' "Yesterday" and "Don't Know Why" by Norah Jones, the two most-recorded songs on the site. Just one stanza into Jones' hit ballad, the appeal was evident. The melody doesn't tax the vocal cords, and it's so pretty that even someone who's minimally talented (like me) can sound halfway decent.

According to SingShot, a whopping 27 people have been exposed to my biggest hit, Madonna's "Secret." To my surprise, I even got a few compliments. Claude27 from New York said the song had "super sound"; someone in the United Kingdom heaped five stars and kisses on me. Based on ratings from seven people (most didn't bother to rate me), the song earned 81 out of 100 points. In fact, all of my recordings so far got positive feedback.

So they liked me, flimsy voice and all. I quickly wrote thank you notes to my fans. When I sobered up, I realized I couldn't take the praise too seriously. (Based on what I saw, getting high ratings has as much to do with kickbacks—giving other members five stars in return for the same—as it does with talent.) But no matter—my confidence will accept whatever boost strangers wish to give, online or offline.

Recording a song is an exercise in self-scrutiny, but the consequences aren't always what you'd expect. Some performers on the site belong on American Idol (in the good way). Unfortunately, I'm not one of them. I've accepted the facts: I'm a mediocre singer. Worse, I've spent years singing in the wrong range. Turns out I'm a solid alto, more suited for girly ballads and mellow guy songs than big diva productions.

Still, I haven't piped down post-SingShot. I'm not sure that my performances have improved because of online karaoke—unless knowing your weaknesses counts as an advantage. But I'm less self-conscious about my singing these days, now that I know everyone has a fan somewhere. The other night, I sang "Total Eclipse of the Heart" to an appreciative crowd at an Irish pub in Brooklyn. I didn't get any do-overs, but I wasn't paralyzed by any of my old worries. Why not hog the mic?