Karaoke Etiquette
November 6, 2011 7:46 PM   Subscribe

Etiquettefilter: During karaoke, what's appropriate when a song contains, e.g., a racial slur? Should you sing the lyrics as written? Substitute some other term? Not sing anything? Does the answer change depending on context - i.e., out with friends in private room, friends in public room, etc.? Specific instances discussed inside.

I was out doing private room karaoke in NYC with a bunch of friends this weekend. One person selected "Gold Digger," which includes lyrics like: "I ain't saying she a gold digger, but she ain't messin with no broke niggas." The lyrics on the screen changed it to "broke bros," which is what some of my friends sang. Others used the original lyrics. The same term came up in Kanye West's Monster and Cee Lo Green's Fuck You.

Slightly different, one of my favorite songs is the Pogues' Fairytale of New York. It includes the lyric: "You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, happy christmas your arse and pray god it's our last." That lyric typically shows up on the screen. The difference is that "niggas" in the first paragraph is not being used pejoratively, while "faggot" in the Pogues definitely is.

Neither are terms I ever use in conversation, but when I sing along to songs or do karaoke I use the original lyrics as I'm used to them and think they sound better - at least when I'm out singing with friends or by myself. Were I out with business colleagues, I'd probably avoid such songs or - if such a term appeared - not sing it. But for whatever reason, the substitutions in the gold digger lyrics and how my other friends reacted has made me wonder if my context-driven decision is correct, or if there is some absolute position I should be following in all situations.
posted by slide to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Since I can't imagine anyone being offended that you *didn't* use a slur, I'd say you should never use one if you're around people you don't know. If you're around your friends, use your best judgment. We don't know them.
posted by clockzero at 7:50 PM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'd probably improvise a substitute or just skip the word. It's karaoke--the stakes are low.
posted by elizeh at 7:52 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hm... using slurs is still kinda pejorative, but I do think it depends on context. I've always thought that substitutions are weird unless they match the cadence.

You could always use ... bigot? Hm.
posted by raihan_ at 7:52 PM on November 6, 2011

Obligatory: Chris Rock's answer.
posted by neroli at 8:01 PM on November 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

Yeah I would probably improvise a substitute (heh, I like "bigot" for "faggot") or just clear my throat strategically.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:02 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

When you sing karaoke, I think it's assumed that you're going to sing the words as written, or at least as they appear on the screen (not everyone knows the words to begin with, so singing what's on the screen is generally safe - and a lot of times those lyrics are wrong anyway).

If there's anything dicey given the company you're sharing, just pick a song without questionable language. Even if you don't sing the slurs, their appearance on the screen might offend some people, so that's the safest thing to do if you're worried about it.
posted by wondermouse at 8:04 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

gold diggers radio edit says, i think, "broke, broke." i like it better because it sounds like he's singing a record skip, which i think sounds neat.

changing words can also add a tiny bit of (welcome) comedy to your performances. get creative!
posted by nadawi at 8:08 PM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

"absolute position"= slurs do not contribute to any culture in a positive way.

Which side of that fence to you want to be on?
posted by HuronBob at 8:21 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

White people should not use that word. Mimicking a black performer doesn't make it okay. No good can come of it. Substitute a different word or skip it.
posted by chrchr at 8:21 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, when I'm doing karaoke I just don't choose songs that have lyrics I'm not comfortable singing. There is an art to choosing a good karaoke song and that is part of it.
posted by Scientist at 8:48 PM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you don't have the stones/moxie/guts/flair to sing the song as the songwriter wrote it, pick something else. Poor song choice coupled with coyness is a disaster.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:28 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to go to karaoke 3 times a week, I am down to maybe once a month now. When not in a private room I would think long and hard about doing a rap song in general even one without words I might not want to sing. If I was comitted to doing a rap song for some reason,I would sing the original lyrics.It is a performance, not a statement of my personal views, actors use distasteful words all the time.

I have done Fairytale In New York and the girl who was doing the Christie McColl part did sing "faggots" again it is a performance of the point of view of the woman in the song, not her view of gays.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:29 PM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

A thought from a hiphop fan: "Sucka" or "Buster" substitutes nicely for the common racial slur. I haven't figured out a good substitute for the usual gendered slurs ("witch" is also generally gendered term that might as well be the word you'd be substituting for).
posted by yeloson at 10:25 PM on November 6, 2011

two options.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:42 PM on November 6, 2011

At no time are you under any obligation to sing the words on the screen, except to the extent that it is fun to do so.

But when it comes to these words I am a crusher: the f-bomb should hurt your brain as much as the major racist slur does. I love Kirsty and it's a great song and of course it's an acting role, but that line is a relic.

There are any number of acceptable comic ways to approach this. Offhand I would go with "you cheap lousy whaat?" Not big like you're in "Love Shack," because there is no time for that, just make a brief face at the machine like it should be ashamed of itself and finish the verse.

Or, yeah, you could go with "fucker." In which case you should consider following up "pray god it's our last" with an understated, serious-sounding "seriously, what the fuck."

I have been laughed at on purpose so what I say is real and true
posted by Adventurer at 11:00 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Huh. I disagree -- I do a fair number of rap songs, and I try to keep them as written. I try really hard to honor the original artists. Then again, it's definitely low stakes.
posted by zug at 11:12 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since I can't imagine anyone being offended that you *didn't* use a slur

I can. Fans of the original artist may be offended that you altered the lyrics.

while "faggot" in the Pogues definitely is.

In the context of the song, it doesn't mean what you think it means.
posted by missmagenta at 12:52 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Personally, I would feel fine singing the original lyric in Fairytale of New York because the song comes close enough to reflecting my family's background (white, hard-drinking, lower working class) and even my current situation (immigrant) that I can comfortably "act out" the story depicted in the song without feeling that I was belittling or making fun of the characters depicted - however, if someone (here or in real life) were to tell me that they were hurt by the use of the word faggot in the song, I would have a good, hard think about it and I can't imagine I would feel comfortable doing it anymore.

I would not, however, remotely consider ever singing the word nigger (or nigga). Ever. I love hip hop, I probably listen to it more than any other type of music, but no, never, absolutely not. In fact, while I think there are plenty of poppy hip-hop tunes that would be fine for karaoke, I would seriously balk at the idea of singing a track angry or political enough to contain the word nigger at karaoke, full stop. Not even if nigger is replaced with homie or busta or fucker or whatever. Everyone knows what the song really says. I don't see anything funny about a white man (or woman) doing an angry Black man (or woman) act for laughs. Fuck that, seriously.

I also hate the use of the phrase "n word" when discussing the word nigger. I think being coy about it is about as useful as putting a doily on a big shit left on the carpet.
posted by cilantro at 1:36 AM on November 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I sing swear words with great relish, but in the case of the Cee Lo song, if I am singing the backup part for someone else, I do as the radio edit does and just omit the offensive word. "No shit she's a gold digger/Just thought you should know." Everyone knows what word goes there, and the part of the audience that sings along might sing it, but I don't.

That said, I like being true to the lyrics even when the song is originally for a male singer. I hate changing pronouns.
posted by tomboko at 4:24 AM on November 7, 2011

Any karaoke nights I've attened - everyone was completely wasted, sang "offensive" songs and no one gave two shits - or at least didn't show it at all.
I think people like karaoke, because you can have a few drinks and make an ass out of yourself on stage - and since others are doing it, no one cares.
I highly doubt anyone is focusing on the lyrics and being "offended".
But I guess it may depend on the region/type of people.

Just don't sing the songs you think people would be offended by.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:31 AM on November 7, 2011

The "pretend you're singing backwards" method of self-censoring is usually pretty effective.
posted by SpiffyRob at 8:22 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just heard "Perfect" by Pink last night in a grocery store. The family-friendly version just omitted "fucking" from the lyrics... and it took me consciously wondering to realize they did it.

Omission is fine.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:15 AM on November 7, 2011

It was kind of ridiculous, but at a karaoke rap block I recently attended, at least one singer substituted the word "hipster." It rhymed well enough, and suited the particular song and crowd, too. For another rap song, one woman used the word "bitches" instead, which did not rhyme, but did serve (as "hipster" did) as a demographically appropriate callout to her peeps.
posted by redsparkler at 10:13 AM on November 7, 2011

You can sing the faggot verse in Fairy Tale of New York without guilt. Mitch Benn is correct.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:15 PM on November 7, 2011

I had a personal experience with this. I think it completely depends on the host of the karaoke...whether it be at a bar, party, etc.

I'd been to many karaoke nights before where cursing and other slurs were either ignored or laughed at-- I didn't think a thing of it-- until I went to a karaoke night I found out was a hip hop night. I'd already signed up for a pop song and then found this out (thus making me choose a hip hop song when I had no interest in doing one).... needless to say, the hip hop songs available were not edited and I sung it as so...not really thinking it may be an issue down the line.

Nothing happened that night... buuut.... a few days later, I receive a very hateful message via Facebook from the host of the karaoke night saying if more people had heard me, I'd have a serious problem on my hands (read: apparent ass kicking material). Did I think I was in the right on this? No, but I definitely felt disrespected given the host found me on Facebook just so he could tell me how wrong I was. I took the message up with the manager of the bar. Let's just say he wasn't invited back as a host.

Moral of the story is... be careful what song you decide to do and who is hosting!
posted by camylanded at 7:41 PM on November 7, 2011

I performed NiN's "Closer" in mixed company and at the request of the host replaced the f-bomb with a raspberry sound. Went over well. If everyone's a grown-up and your parents aren't there, just sing it like it's written.
posted by jewzilla at 11:03 PM on November 7, 2011

Yo, Is This Racist? How about this?
posted by ottereroticist at 5:13 PM on November 8, 2011

You can sing the faggot verse in Fairy Tale of New York without guilt. Mitch Benn is correct.

I feel like that makes it OK more for listening than for singing to an audience? I mean, I know what it means to everybody else I've heard use it, and I know what people are going to hear (even if it doesn't bother them to hear it), and if I'm at karaoke I doubt everybody I went there with is straight, so on top of "why'd she sing that homophobe line" there's also going to be, for them, the sting of hearing it in yet another damn place, this time while trying to have fun with friends, and wondering why I didn't think better of it. Which is to say nothing of anonymous queer people who might just be in the crowd somewhere.

I'm not inclined to look into this from this here work computer, but is the difference all in the "-got"? The entry says it's a Liverpudlian and Irish usage, but John Lennon definitely used the short form to refer to Brian Epstein and the New York Dolls, among others.
posted by Adventurer at 5:41 PM on November 8, 2011

Wow, I can't believe I forgot about this: Here's Ted Leo self-censoring himself while singing Fairytale of New York. (Scroll Down)
posted by SpiffyRob at 9:36 AM on November 11, 2011

I imagine the podcast is going to bring a few more views over to this page, so this comment won't be entirely in vain...

I'm of two minds. Respect the original artist, but don't offend people who are trying to have a good time out partying. Now, frankly, if a person knows the song, and the offensive word is skipped or otherwise changed, it's just as likely to call to mind the slur as if you'd said it, so I dunno.

I would keep "Fairytale of New York" as is. As has been said, contextually the word doesn't mean what you might think, but also that verse is key to the momentum of the song, needing to be as angry and ugly as it can be. My favorite local karaoke place is a gay bar, and I can't imagine this going over badly there.

"Nigger" is tougher though, and one which I'd avoid, myself. Now, I'm a tiny white boy. That said, I have a bass voice and my favorite karaoke number is "Chocolate Salty Balls." Seriously, I have done this one in front of tons of crowds, including once in front of my parents and another time in front of a bouncer who I didn't know regularly sang that song, and who was pissed off/impressed that I had bested him at it. I can pull off that song (which contains no slurs but is clearly meant to be performed by a black man) because I own it. I don't make a minstrel show out of it, or put on a "black" voice or whatever. I just throw myself entirely into it. And it works.

So that's my advice. If you're going to sing the slur, don't hesitate for even an instant. If you're going to hesitate, sing something else.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:00 PM on December 7, 2011

I sing whatever if I'm with my friends AND they are friends who do not care. If they are friends who care, or people whose feelings I don't know, I substitute another word or don't sing the word. It's going to depend on the people involved, because some people will think it sounds weird/stupid if you don't sing it; I have a couple of black friends who feel this way about "nigga," that by not singing it it sounds jarring and calls attention to it and makes it a weird thing when they otherwise wouldn't care. (I somewhat feel this way when people censor "bitch," like it's calling attention to the fact that I'm female and there and therefore everything has to be all awkward and also they can guess how I feel about things based on my gender -- I dunno, it's weirdly sexist and uncomfortable in some ways. I accept that they're trying to be respectful and that's nice of them, but I'm still left feeling uncomfortable.) I have other friends who don't like to hear white people say it. (I've never had all those people in the same karaoke room at the same time because they live in different cities, but if I did I would default to not saying it because it would probably offend the people who don't like hearing it more than the people who get annoyed at changing it.)

I personally don't like hearing words changed in songs because I feel like the lyrics are the lyrics, and lyrics are what I most remember about any song; hearing them changed is like hearing a bowling ball dropped on a piano for me. I'm a bisexual female and while I'm bothered by homophobia and misogyny in real life interactions, I don't care if people sing homophobic and misogynistic things at karaoke; it doesn't mean they're homophobic or misogynistic any more than it would if they played a homophobic or misogynistic character in a movie. And since I think music and movies and writing and all that is supposed to reflect aspects of how people are, and not always how they should be, I'm irked when people censor stuff -- especially when it's not even used in a negative way, like "nigga" in most songs. I feel like trying to edit misogyny or homophobia out of a song is like pretending those things don't exist, plus it can feel patronizing; a lot of songs where hateful language is used in a hateful way is to purposefully demonstrate how messed up it is by taking the perspective of a hateful person, so I'm left wondering if the person doing the censoring is stupid, WAY overly cautious, or thinks of me like a child. If they had just sang the lyrics I wouldn't have any of this weird stuff interfering with my enjoyment. It'd be like going to a reading of Lolita, except they took all the pedophilia stuff out because it's offensive; sometimes the point is that it's offensive, and it's indirectly insulting to the audience to decide for them that they can't handle it.

But if someone had a really visceral reaction to hearing those words no matter what, or really felt that any member of group XYZ shouldn't say them, I would just deal with having to hear/sing censored lyrics; it's just being respectful of bad-feeling triggers most people can't really help having developed through negative experiences. After all, while you wouldn't censor a reading of Lolita, you also wouldn't bust it out at a general book reading where it could trigger people who had no idea they would be hearing that sort of thing. You have to be more cautious about anything like that, and honestly I don't think it's even a clear green light if you're somehow representative of the group of people who can say whatever the offensive term is, because it might still upset other people. I might have more license to say "bitch" at karaoke than a guy does, but it doesn't mean other women (or even men) won't hate hearing it. Someone who was molested might have more license to sing a song about molesting or being molested, but it doesn't mean other people won't have bad reactions. There's a song I really like from the perspective of a child whose father hits their mother, and since my father hit my mother, I might be able to justify singing it -- except other people in my same position might not like hearing it anyway. Some black people don't even like hearing other black people say "nigga." And so on.

So err on the side of caution, but I don't think it's as clearcut as "OMG NEVER EVER EVER" though, because if no one cares and of those people, some people are bothered by hearing it changed, then you should go ahead and sing the original lyrics. My discomfort when people don't say "bitch" (for example) isn't as extreme as the discomfort another woman might feel when they hear "bitch", but it's still pretty unpleasant to feel like attention has been called to me and that what should be a light-hearted occasion is suddenly All Serious because I am a Woman. If it's a small group and no one has any particular aversion to "bitch," I'd MUCH rather you say it. If it's a big public group and I don't know you, I'm probably not going to feel like you're calling attention to me in particular if you don't say it, at least.
posted by Nattie at 2:49 AM on December 8, 2011

« Older How to recognize your own manager?   |   Popup footnotes in an e-book app Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.