KJ, keep playing that song: A seven-day journey through Brooklyn’s karaoke bars

This wonderful book awaits you at Hope & Anchor's karaoke night. Photo by Katy Hershberger.

This wonderful book awaits you at Hope & Anchor’s karaoke night. Photo by Katy Hershberger.

I sing a lot of karaoke. It’s not something I’m proud of, and also, it’s something I’m extremely proud of. It’s not about belting the perfect rendition of “Since U Been Gone” (that song is actually crazy hard to sing). It’s about a feeling, a community, and being a rock star for four minutes. (Karaoke rule No. 1: Please don’t sing any song longer than that.)

There are now enough karaoke bars and nights in Brooklyn that if you wanted to, you could sing karaoke every night of the week without leaving the borough. So I did. I hit nine bars in 10 days. When my friends couldn’t make it, I went solo. I sang a duet with a stranger. I saw a celebrity. I heard a lot of Prince tributes. I started using the groan-worthy term KJ (karaoke jockey). I didn’t sing the same song twice. And I learned a few things about the genre (anything from No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom is a crowd pleaser, anywhere) and myself (karaoke people are the best people). Based on my exciting and exhausting research, enjoy this guide to karaoke bars in Brooklyn including where you can find everything from new indie rock songs, a Hamilton piano singalong and heavy metal karaoke that comes with a free shot. Now, anybody have a lozenge?

MONDAY

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Monday proved to be the hardest night to find a karaoke bar. The Kings of Karaoke — a cadre of KJs who hosts karaoke nights around Brooklyn — is starting one later this month, but in the meantime, this is the perfect night for private karaoke rooms.

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A photo posted by A N (@ariellarobyn) on

Insa
328 Douglass St, Gowanus
Daily, 5pm – 2am

This is the karaoke that started it all: I was so impressed by a night here that it drove me to write this article. Insa is a new Korean BBQ restaurant with impressive food and drinks, but my biggest interest lies with the five private karaoke rooms in the back. They book up fast so be sure to make a reservation, though if you’re lucky (read: early) walk-ins might be able to sneak in for an hour or two before or between reservations. The small rooms go for $60 an hour, which certainly isn’t cheap. Though it does seem like you get what you pay for (or maybe it just hasn’t been around long enough to become shitty): good sound quality, an eclectic songbook (Rilo Kiley! Tegan and Sara!), a tambourine (a classic accoutrement in Korean karaoke places), an app to search for songs, and, unlike most private rooms, not having to split the check based on a per-person-per-hour charge.
I sang: “Black” by Pearl Jam, “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind, “Hook” by Blues Traveler, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” by En Vogue
Best for: Getting all your friends in one room for indie rock and 90s jams.

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Photo by Katy Hershberger/Brokelyn.

Photo by Katy Hershberger/Brokelyn.

Beats Karaoke
219 Grand St, Williamsburg
Daily, 5pm – 12am

Beats Karaoke is a one-stop karaoke shop with private rooms and an open bar in which to sing to strangers. Rooms are $8-per-person-per-hour, and half off at happy hour from 5-7pm. They don’t serve liquor, just beer, wine and sake, which is still enough to inspire you to song. This place has a big book and a website to search for songs, which include such new favorites as Fitz and the Tantrums and YouTube star Ameriie (I’m told she’s a thing). Many of the songs here also have videos — either the official music video or a wonderfully silly classic karaoke video. The rooms have large windows that look out onto the sidewalk … and, mercifully, blackout shades to keep your performance, uh, private. This place closes at midnight because it’s near the new condos in Williamsburg, so don’t plan on a late night.
I sang: “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus, “Fourfiveseconds” by Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney, “Love in an Elevator” by Aerosmith
Best for: Starting to sing at 5pm and losing track of time.

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TUESDAY

Photo via @leenie_boyle/Instagram

Photo via @leenie_boyle/Instagram

Live Piano Karaoke at Manhattan Inn
632 Manhattan Ave, Greenpoint
Tuesdays, 9pm

Karaoke at this restaurant and piano bar is like lounge singer fantasy camp, and I mean that as a huge compliment. Host Jason Laney has the lyrics to the songs on his laptop on the piano, and will sing backup with you as he plays. Here’s the thing: singing with a live musician is much harder than singing with a familiar recording, so it really helps to know your song. He has a well-curated list of karaoke favorites (“Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Wonderwall”), piano standards (Billy Joel, John Legend’s “All of Me”), and indie rock (Gogol Bordello, The Mountain Goats). This is also the first karaoke bar I’ve seen with a Hamilton song on the list. The crowd really picks up around 11, so early in the night you have the opportunity to sing a lot (or to listen to Jason sing).
I sang: “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Wait for It” from the Hamilton Soundtrack, “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues
Best for: Belting out song you know really well.

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WEDNESDAY

Singing a metal song means a free shot at Matchless. Via Kings of Karaoke website.

Singing a metal song means a free shot at Matchless. Via Kings of Karaoke website.

Heavy Metal Karaoke at Bar Matchless
557 Manhattan Ave, Williamsburg
Wednesdays, 10pm

On Wednesday nights the Kings of Karaoke host “Heavy Metal Karaoke” at Bar Matchless in Williamsburg. While you’re not required to sing metal you get a free shot of whiskey if you do, so it behooves you to bone up on your Megadeth. The singers and the bar itself are loud and fun, but there’s definitely a “cool” vibe among the song selections — aside from metal, old school country and No Doubt are hits. This is a place where “Twist and Shout” is really shouted. I want to give a particular nod to the two women who drank white wine for an hour and then gave the most metal performances of the night (Iron Maiden and System of a Down).
I sang: “Somebody to Love” by Queen
Best for: Singing Johnny Cash and Black Sabbath

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THURSDAY

Photo by Katy Hershberger/Brokelyn.

Photo by Katy Hershberger/Brokelyn.

Branded Saloon
603 Vanderbilt Ave., Prospect Heights
Thursdays, 10pm

Walking into the small back room of this Western-themed gay bar might feel a bit like walking into a private party. About 10 people were there to start, 25 by the middle of the night, but the small crowd means that almost every song turns into a dance party. The crowd is young and the songs they sung ranged from Jim Croce to “Man in the Mirror” to 4 Non Blondes to CeeLo’s “Fuck You.” When a duo sang Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” I overheard someone say “They should have to pay us for this.” But by the end of the song, everyone was singing along, so…

This was my first solo karaoke experience and I was nervous to hang out alone, let alone sing entirely to strangers. The KJ — a bearded guy with hand and neck tattoos from a company called Karaoke Warzone — reassured me: “Don’t worry. Just sing from the heart.”
I sang: “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn, “Shoop” by Salt N Pepa
Best for: Having a karaoke dance party.

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FRIDAY

when @rexharrison sings third eye blind, everyone’s life is semi-charmed. A photo posted by caitlin donovan (@youmadmeskrym) on

Hope & Anchor
347 Van Brunt St, Red Hook
Fridays & Saturdays, 9pm

This neighborhood diner hosts karaoke for a small crowd of regulars, many of whom are finishing dinner. The KJ is a stately drag queen who looks more like my mother than RuPaul, and tells jokes between songs like a cabaret act. The night I went there was quiet by karaoke standards, and downright civilized: cheering happens mostly after songs, not during, and there isn’t much dancing. On this rainy spring night the song selections were mostly slow jams, like Rhianna’s “Stay”, a refreshing change from most boisterous karaoke nights.
I sang: “Stay” by Lisa Loeb.
Best for: Snacking before you sing

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Nailing Hunger Strike #healthgoth

A photo posted by Roddy (@roddyshine) on

Montero’s Bar & Grill
73 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn Heights
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 10pm

I heard a lot about this place before I had ever been. I was told it was small and crowded. That it was an “experience.” That it’s an old shipman bar so the crowd is blue-collar and judgmental of songs. That it’s best to sing crowd pleasers and tri-state favorites like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. That you’ll hear “Don’t Stop Believing” multiple times a night. Only some of these are true — there was no judgement and I didn’t hear Journey — but it is a packed little dive with an all-ages crowd and a party vibe.

The 100-page song book is a bit limited, but the KJ has twice as many songs on her laptop, so they’re likely to have what you want as long as it’s not too obscure. I cringed when a group went up to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which is usually a karaoke no-no — it’s so long, so falsetto, so many instrumental breaks—but it worked in this place, perhaps because Wayne Campbell himself, Mike Myers, sat at the end of the bar. (Though reports say he hid under the bar when the song was being sung.)
I sang: “Only the Good Die Young” by Billy Joel
Best for: Singing the oldies

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SATURDAY

Via Shenanigans Facebook.

Via Shenanigans Facebook.

Shenanigans
802 Caton Ave. Windsor Terrace
Saturdays, 10pm

I went solo to this karaoke bar and quickly became friends with one of the regulars, an older gentleman named Paul, who was comfortable enough there to sneak up to the KJ’s computer and see what song was next. It was quiet for a Saturday with about 25 people there by midnight, but Paul tells me that most weekends are much busier, with about 30 percent regulars and 70 percent new faces. The KJ, Eddie Mac, looks a bit like Kevin Spacey and plays air guitar while you’re signing. He has been hosting karaoke here on Saturdays for over a decade, and doesn’t do it anywhere else. There’s a friends-and-family feel here — no slips of paper, just tell Eddie what you want to sing. The songbook is missing most of what you want, but he has it on his laptop.
I sang: “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood, “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler as a duet with my new friend Paul
Best for: Cheap drinks and top 40 hits.

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A photo posted by Colleen Clark (@colleenclark) on

Old Carriage Inn
312 7th Ave., Park Slope
Fridays and Saturdays, 10pm

This neighborhood dive may be the most popular karaoke bar in Kings County. It has the most people, the longest time to sing, and the most loyal regulars of anywhere I’ve been this week. It’s a big space and on Saturdays it’s packed with a diverse crowd, including an older man — perhaps the owner? — smoking a pipe at the end of the bar. (Fridays tend to be slightly more chill.)

The song book is large with a great selection, but be sure to prepare a couple back up songs since, as happened to me, someone may have already put in your preferred song. On a Saturday it’s possible to wait two hours before singing, so be ready to grab some drinks and listen. The songs are as unpretentious and varied as the patrons: “Aquarius” and “Kryptonite,” Robbie Williams’ “Rock DJ” and Danzig’s “Mother. The KJ, who wore a headband with bedazzled cat ears, will help you out on a song if needed and often walks through the bar getting high fives from the crowd.
I sang: “Hey Jealousy” by Gin Blossoms
Best for: A birthday party

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SUNDAY

Photo by Katy Hershberger/Brokelyn.

Photo by Katy Hershberger/Brokelyn.

Nerdeoke at The Way Station
683 Washington Ave, Prospect Heights
Last Sunday of the Month, 9pm

Brooklyn’s favorite Doctor Who-themed bar starts karaoke promptly at 9pm — the only prompt one of the bunch — with the Kings of Karaoke KJ singing Tenacious D’s “Tribute” and apologizing for his hoarseness (ahem, he had lost his voice at Philadelphia Ren Fair that weekend). But I’m not being snarky. I can’t, because “Nerdeoke” is some of the warmest, most supportive karaoke I’ve ever seen. Sure, it is a bit like going to karaoke with your high school theater friends, complete with cosplay garb and musical singalongs.

This is the place to try out whatever esoteric song you’ve been hankering to sing; no matter what, your performance will be met with cheers. Song choices range from Kesha to Foo Fighters to “Jump in the Line” to “One Night in Bangkok” from the musical Chess — which was a particular crowd pleaser. This karaoke night is completely delightful and encompasses the best things about nerd culture: unselfconsciousness and being unabashedly enthusiastic. And isn’t that what karaoke is all about?
I sang: “Valerie” by Marc Ronson and Amy Winehouse
Best for: Karaoke virgins or trying out something new.

Did we miss your favorite karaoke night? Tell us in the comments! 

Follow Katy to the microphone and beyond: @KatyHersh.

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