ABC show chronicles the crowning of a karaoke champ
Once karaoke was nothing more than a goof. A bunch of friends hit a bar, drank until inhibitions were a memory, then as friends egged them on, approached the stage.
Maybe it was the loud music, maybe it was the altered state, but millions of people over the years convinced themselves that they sounded exactly like Pat Benatar or Frank Sinatra. They didn’t. Yet some amazing talent, including Taylor Swift, has come out of the karaoke circuit. And that struck a chord with Muriel Pearson, executive producer of ABC’s “Karaoke Battle USA.” The show launches with a twohour premiere Friday, Aug. 12.
“I have discovered that the karaoke community is a community, and they frequent bars and create social networks through this experience,” Pearson says. “It is a social networking experience to do karaoke. It brings people together.”
“The best karaoke singers in America all know each other from competing in these competitions,” Pearson says. “It really is an incredibly interesting social phenomenon which binds them together.”
The six-episode show picks up the Karaoke World Championship trials after people have been competing for months. The judges, singer Carnie Wilson, karaoke champion Brian Scott and journalist Joe Levy, pick one man and one woman. Viewers don’t vote.
“I love all shows like this — any show that is a singing contest,” Wilson says.
Despite that she’s in a singing group, Wilson Phillips, Wilson admits that karaoke makes her nervous.
“Karaoke is a lot of fun,” she says. “I have huge stage fright about karaoke, and everybody expects you to be a great singer.”
As host, Joey Fatone’s job is “to try to make the people comfortable,” he says. Even after the years of performing with ’N Sync, Fatone enjoys a good karaoke song. His favorite karaoke song is “Jessie’s Girl.”
This contest chronicles how people take it to the next level with the judges advising them.
“I am looking for a man and a woman that can end up on the stage, and first and foremost sing their tail off,” Wilson says. “I am not looking for someone that can mimic the singer of the song they chose. I don’t expect someone to get up there and sing exactly like Celine Dion or Mariah Carey.
“I am just looking for someone with a really great energy and stage presence, an incredible voice where they can have a strong vocal quality and maybe somebody a little different who can sing that song with their own flair,” she continues. “It is hard because karaoke is literally singing the songs that have been recorded by famous people. A lot of people in karaoke pick songs they can sing because they sound like the artist.”
The vast majority of the contestants can sing but don’t have much stage presence, Wilson says.
The judges listened to singers in regional contests in Houston, Las Vegas, New York and Chicago.
“I would say percentage-wise 10 percent are just ridiculous and clownlike,” she says. “And 25 percent are not very good, and 30 percent that have pretty good potential and need a lot of training. And then you have that 20 percent that is really gifted.”
This does leave 15 percent unaccounted for, but Wilson’s point is that the singers who make it as far as the regionals are generally talented.
“They call me the pitch mama,” she says. “Pitch to me is everything. When you sing, you better be on key. I can understand a couple of notes off, but you can’t sit there and hold a long note and be off key. Your scores are going to get knocked down. I keep saying to them, ‘You have got 90 seconds! If you are nervous, put your nerves into that performance. You better do something to divert my attention.’ ”
Singers are judged on voice quality, rhythm and tempo, vocal expression, stage presence, and entertainment value, Pearson says.
The show partners with the Karaoke World Championship, which, Pearson says, keeps the “experience very authentic.” In addition to representing the United States at the international contest in Ireland this year, the winner receives a recording contract for a single.
“This whole competition is about real people, not wannabe stars,” Pearson says. “It’s people who just love to sing. We want to use it as a prism of looking out in America. People come from every walk of life. There is a physicist, a burlesque dancer, a lot of moms and dads, just normal family folk, but they have jobs, some are stay-at-home moms.”
Carnie Wilson is a judge on “Karaoke Battle USA,” premiering Friday on Channel 4.