Karaoke Is Most Fun When It's Also Depressing

I never intended for karaoke to be a method of self-care or whatever, but when I think back to my peak karaoke-going days in 2016, when I went almost every week...yeah, I suppose something was up.

by Jinnie Lee
Mar 18 2019, 3:16pm

Photo by Ellen Van Dusen.

This Is Fine. is Broadly's weekly newsletter about the previously private and highly personal tactics people use to make the world less harrowing. In this week's letter, Jinnie Lee makes a case for being a total downer on karaoke night. Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy from Broadly and This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.

There’s a perfect joke that comedian Kate Berlant tells, wherein she says karaoke isn’t a replacement for therapy. The roast is so @ me that I’ve kept most of my karaoke outings off display (aka, off of Instagram) in case someone’s secretly keeping tabs. I’m also slightly embarrassed at my inability to seek professional help (and I’m aware astrologists don’t count), simply because I’m unwilling, plus too overwhelmed to put in the work of seeing a doctor with any regularity. So I’ve (still) never been to therapy, but I’ll continue to squander hundreds of dollars a year at karaoke lounges.

Like therapy (I imagine), karaoke helps me work through my shit, but unlike therapy, it’s a fun social activity that occurs in a dark room with laser party lights, which is my ideal form of a panic room. I never intended for karaoke to be a method of self-care or whatever, but when I think back to my peak karaoke-going days in 2016, when I went almost every week—yeah, I suppose something was up.

The kind of karaoke I prefer doesn’t take place at the massive birthday party or the drunken bachelorette where everyone sing-screams radio hits from the TRL era. I’m a proponent of downer karaoke,and my version of it looks like this: a private karaoke room with two or three friends max, during after-work hours, with a playlist consisting of sad ballads that, in a different setting, might bum people out. Downer karaoke is best with very close friends because things can get moody quickly—but that’s all part of the “fun,” sort of like how it can be “fun” to rewatch The Notebook or Coco so you can cry with others.

The first time I experienced downer karaoke was an accident. In 2016, I had a numbing job where I blogged about chirpy influencers. The office was located in a horrid area of town that I call “the butthole of Manhattan,” which is the wasteland by the Lincoln Tunnel. (Some say it’s technically Hell’s Kitchen—to me, it was simply hell.)

The only saving grace: Koreatown, a haven of ridiculously cheap karaoke rates during happy hour, was a few avenues away, so after work I’d meet my friend Maura at what became our go-to spot, Duets 35. Since it was usually just the two of us, karaoke was a non-judgmental safe space to test out material or select songs that we’d be too self-conscious to attempt in front of a larger group.

Downer karaoke unexpectedly kicked off one night after I entered “Yesterday Once More” by The Carpenters, a melancholic, downbeat song that I’d never sang out loud before. I don’t know what compelled me to play it at the top. I likely flipped to the C-name artists randomly and chose that song out of nostalgia: “Yesterday Once More” reminds me of my gentle dad, whose favorite singer is Karen Carpenter. Coincidentally, the song is also about nostalgia (which, by the way, was once considered a medical disease): “Lookin' back on how it was in years gone by / And the good times that I had / Makes today seem rather sad, so much has changed.”

Maura hadn’t heard the song before, so I was on my own, solo on the hot mic, filling the room with the stone-cold sober rawness of my voice. It was over in four minutes, but “Yesterday Once More” made me feel better at the end of it. The song was a fitting reflection on the corporate malaise of my weekdays, and it’s since turned into my favorite sadcore karaoke jam. Maura, who was vibing, followed with “Stay” by Rihanna, immediately appreciating the power in belting a piano-driven downer about heartache.

The karaoke universe is full of beautiful downer songs, and many do overlap with Top 40, which makes some downer karaoke sessions more accessible to novices. A few options: the other “Stay,” by Lisa Loeb; “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne; “Brick” by Ben Folds Five; “On My Own” from the Les Miz Broadway soundtrack; “Unbreak My Heart” by Toni Braxton; “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las, “Adia” by Sarah McLachlan; “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles; “Foolish Games” by Jewel; “Oh Father” by Madonna. The qualifiers of a downer song are purely subjective, but the general sweet spot: a low-tempo tune with stripped-down vocals and vulnerable lyrics—of unrequited love, loneliness, self-doubt, a tragic incident, painful memories, et cetera. Extra points, too, if a song is in a minor key or features stringed instruments—I prefer more “Yellow” by Coldplay and less “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers, though both are certainly welcome in the queue.

One of my favorite aspects of downer karaoke is being surprised by friends’ selections. My ex-roommate Ilana’s pick is “Wind of Change” by Scorpions, which is a song about the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Cold War (!), and it destroys me every time I hear her sing it. My wise pal Lena defaults to her hometown Chicago favorite, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt—an actual lyric is, “Just hold me close, don't patronize / Don’t patronize me.” It’s a song that’s almost too devastating for karaoke, so I’m in awe when she plunges into its deep melancholy.

Sharing this sacred space with friends is proof that ending up in tears isn’t the point of downer karaoke. It’s an uplifting affair where pals take turns presenting their heartbreak-iest songs, then allowing others to join in the communion. It’s best experienced with the open-hearted love and understanding of the people you trust, where no one will shade you for needing to sing “Tears In Heaven.”

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For me, marinating in an emo state of mind is very comforting. It reminds me of my high school days, when I’d get so sad about the world that all I wanted to do was further wallow by listening to a lot of Elliott Smith. (It’s also a good thing that Smith’s discog is far too indie for karaoke songbooks.) But the thing about feeling emo as a teen is that I’d eventually pull myself out of it, always on my own terms and not because my mom forced my brother to be nice to me, or whatever.

“Yesterday Once More” and other downer songs of its ilk nestle me back in that nostalgic brain space of being bummed out and being okay with it. My emotions are a bit more contained these days, but downer karaoke provides relief when I get to force out some good ol’ sadness, amplified with the aid of a loud-ass mic. With every wail, shift to the minor key, sha-la-la-la, and whoa-oh-whoa, I feel the catharsis in getting down with feeling down.