July 30th, 2012
Guest article! What happens when politics meets karaoke? We’re about to find out…and we might just learn something before we’re done. Check out the great advice below from Abigail Collazo and Jesse B. Rauch.
What Politicians Can Learn from Competitive Karaoke
Long the purview of large groups of friends belting out Spice Girls or Maroon 5 at Korean bars, karaoke has finally come to Washington D.C. in team-sport fashion with the arrival of District Karaoke, a social but competitive karaoke league. DK just closed its sold-out second season this week, when over 70 members from 9 teams competed at the City-Wide Finals. But we ARE in the nation’s capital, and it is indeed an election year, so here’s some insight from two politicos and karaoke enthusiasts as to what political campaigns and candidates can learn from powerhouse songbirds.
1) Know Your Audience
Karaoke is not about you, the performer. It’s about the audience, and about you entertaining them. There’s nothing more mortifying than having your audience turn away from you (unless they happen to bring tomatoes with them – then there IS something worse). This is why it’s critical that you sing to your audience and cater to their likes and dislikes. In other words, meet them where they are. This may be as simple as not singing Don’t Stop Believing first thing in the evening to a crowd of millennials – they’ll judge you for it, and not well. Or if your audience trends older, steering clear of Tenacious D or Sir Mix a Lot, and instead dusting off that Frank Sinatra, Etta James, or Nat King Cole number. Choose songs that your audience is familiar with, tunes and lyrics that resonate with their experiences and lives.
Politics, as well, is not about you, (the politician or candidate) but instead is about your constituency. It’s about the message you’re conveying, and whether it resonates with the people who you want listening. Are they buying what you’re selling? In order to connect to your voters, you need to speak in their language. Go to their homes, their diners, their bowling alleys and their parks. Meet them where they are and speak not just about issues and policies, but about shared commitments and values.
Of course, knowing your audience is not the same as manipulating or packing your audience with your friends in disguise. Flying-in black supporters to cheer for you during your speech to the NAACP, for example, is not a good strategy. Deceit does not poll well.
2) Engage Your Audience
Karaoke is not a spectator sport. While more than one of our participants this past season got recruited by talent scouts, karaoke isn’t really the place to get up and croon alone – if your audience isn’t a part of your performance, then you risk alienating them. After all, karaoke isn’t necessarily about listening to a great singer with hands folded politely in laps. Get your audience up and singing along with you! Like a Virgin, Call Me Maybe (yeah, we went there),Love Shack, anything by Billy Joel – your audience will likely sing along (or at least groove in their seat). When your audience can sing along, and even better, when you can go out and sing with your audience, they’re going to like you better and feel more invested in your performance – and next time, they may even get up and dance!
Organizers think about engaging their audience along what’s called the “Ladder of Engagement.” The “Engagement Pyramid” is the visual representation of how engaged in your community a person is. Stage 1 is Observing, then Following, Endorsing, Contributing, Owning, and finally Leading. So at the bottom, you have a heavy base of lightly engaged supporters – people who generally think well of you and are casual, but supportive, bystanders. At the top, you have clustered the small number of deeply engaged people working in intense and in depth ways in propel the cause forward and lead the masses. Political campaigns operate on this system as well, and as politician or candidate, your job is to move people from knowing who you are (stage 1) to following you on Twitter (stage 2) to posting a yard sign (stage 3) to donating money (stage 4) to submitting an entry to your Facebook photo contest (stage 5) to organizing the masses on Election Day (stage 6). Just as in karaoke, you need buy-in from your audience. The more engaged they are, the more engaged they will be.
3) Own the Unexpected
Microphones stop working. The song is in a different key. It’s faster than expected because they only have the techno-dance-remix version. Things happen when you’re singing karaoke. But you can’t let it phase you. You’re on a stage – and for the next five minutes, that stage belongs to you and you alone. Own it. Own the moment. It’s unlikely anyone else knows you had something else prepared, so as long as you keep on trucking through, let the audience know you’re having a good time, they’ll follow your lead.
Any kind of logistics that can go wrong in karaoke can go wrong in politics, too. Microphones stop working. A breaking story about a devastating mass shooting in a Colorado theater means your prescheduled zippidy-do-da tweet about the weekend plans of people with guns is not going to go over as well as you’d originally planned. But again, things happen. Fix whatever needs fixing, and quickly refocus the attention on your message – if you allow yourself to be distracted, your constituents will follow your lead.
4) Cater to Your Strengths
So, you’re not the best singer? That’s quite alright. As mentioned, karaoke isn’t just about singing. At District Karaoke, for example, our performers are judged on a very scientifically-calibrated “Sing It, Bring It, Schwing It” scoring system, whereby your performance, showmanship, choreography, even costumes! – get judged as well. If you can’t compete with that rockstar vocalist who went before you, absolutely owning Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You/ as only a superstar can, you should compete on another level. One of DK’s highest scoring performances involved a Cookie Monster puppet (and no, it wasn’t the Sesame Street Cover of Call Me Maybe).
Not all candidates or politicians have the same strengths and skill sets. Particularly when they’re campaigning, it’s easy to spot the ones who aren’t strong debaters because they fight to participate in fewer of them. You can tell when a candidate isn’t having a lot of success with “call time” (when candidates sit for hours on end ringing up supporters to ask for money) when their schedule suddenly becomes packed with significantly more fundraising events. That’s all ok – we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Not that great on camera? Run TV ads that focus more on testimonials from family members or supporters than on you discussing wonky policy initiatives (Tip: puppies never have bad hair days). Learn to recognize your strengths and give yourself the advantage.
Sometimes you have just the perfect song and the perfect dance moves, but by the end of that diva number you are way too tired to belt that ballad. This is when you take the idea of engaging your audience a step further and let them help you out. What do we mean? Livin’ on a Prayer is a favorite go-to, end-of-the-night song for millennials, but darn that ending goes on and on and on and on. If you’re soloing and getting tired, hand the mic off to a group of nearby fans to finish out the chorus with you. Drag a couple of friends up there and let them have the spotlight for a bit. The best performers know when to step away from the stage and share the attention.
Politicians don’t have all the answers (we’ll wait a second while we let that shocking fact sink in). But nor do they also have all the ideas. When you feel like you’ve been sending the same message over and over and over again and people are starting to tune you out, consider a listening tour, a reverse town hall, or even a Twitter chat. Remember the lessons about engaging your audience and your constituents, and take some cues from them as you move forward. As the proverb states, “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Go far.
We’re less than 100 days out from Election Day 2012 and and even fewer from the start of District Karaoke’s Fall 2012 season. We know we’re in for some heated debate on the campaign trail (and not just because of global warming), as well as some fierce competition in the world of “Sing It, Bring It, and Schwing It” karaoke. It’s not always easy to combine our two loves (although some politicians have managed), but remember that the things that unite us are greater than the things that divide us, and karaoke and politics have more in common than you may have thought.
And if you’re still doubtful, head over to a karaoke lounge tonight after watching the Olympics and queue up Born in the U.S.A. We guarantee that Republican and Democrat politicos alike will join in!
Your editor would like to point out that he sings a mean version of Every Rose Has Its Thorn…. – cpd