Somebody once quipped that keeping a song in your heart was like providing karaoke to the voices in your head. Clever, sure, but these days, we don’t even need season seven – season seven! – of American Idol to prove we’d much rather just open our mouths, belt out “Umbrella,” and let the voices in our head provide backup vocals.

Yes, we love to sing, even when we have no demonstrable ability to do so. We do it in the car, in the shower, onstage in the bar after one too many. And increasingly, we’re doing it in front of the television screens in our living rooms, with a microphone attached to a gaming console. Karaoke games don’t get the press, and they sure as hell don’t get the respect from the hard-core gaming crowd – guys and gals who probably wouldn’t be caught dead with a USB microphone in their FPS-twitching hands. But damned if they’re not proliferating with the speed and strength of Sex and the City knockoffs.

Scoff if you want to at Disney’s monolithic High School Musical franchise, but never, ever underestimate the power of unleashing your inner Zac Efron – even if it is accompanied by freakish, cel-shaded graphical representations of the stars of Disney’s ever-churning teen-fame factory. Such is the tween charm of High School Musical: Sing It!, a game that gives both 9-year-olds and, after they’ve gone to bed, their parents the chance to belt out the entire song catalogs of the original flick and its sequel, racking up scores and unlocking new stages. At $60, it’s something of a steep pop, but then again, this is the same parent demographic that ponied up a grand for Hannah Montana tickets, so anything’s possible.

When you think about it, a USB mic isn’t necessarily that far removed from the blow dryer previous generations of sixth-graders used to turn their living rooms into Star Search. The difference now is that there’s a rudimentary tool to measure your relative vocal suckage. In determining your “score,” most of these games are tracking tone and pitch – more specifically, your ability to come within a barn’s broadside of either one. You may not rack up the points, but at least you finally have objective proof that you’re not the next Ashley Tisdale. (Thank god.)

Meanwhile, Sony’s SingStar franchise has taken on an almost K-tellian, Time-Warner vibe, with the company kicking out era- and genre-themed discs to please all segments of the karaoke demographic. Feeling Madonna? Flip SingStar ’80s into your PlayStation 2. Rather channel Chris Cornell in Audioslave? SingStar Amped has you covered. And, hey, we’re only weeks away from SingStar ’90s, a title sure to remind us of the, um, musical excellence of Vanilla Ice and Color Me Badd.

The SingStar games are the Wal-Mart of the karaoke game world, giving you the basics in a package that comes closest to approximating a hip MTV vibe. The artist’s music video plays on-screen, and you sing along, alone or against a bunch of friends. More than the other karaoke games, SingStar captures the comedy element of the late-night bar – the joy of busting a gut at your tone-deaf friend’s fingers-on-a-chalkboard hubris. It’s the same reason that the opening episodes of each American Idol season – the ones where Simon and company eviscerate the most hopeless of America’s tone-deaf wannabes – are always the most hilariously entertaining.

SingStar for the PlayStation 3 comes out in May, giving anyone who’s bothered to pick up a PlayStation EyeToy camera – maybe in the card-flopping game Eye of Judgement? – the chance to complete the YouTube trifecta, capturing and sharing your own private performances with the world. Or at least on PlayStation’s Home Network.

I’m not sure if Simon Cowell, undisputed master of the withering one-liner, would appreciate the irony inherent in the fact that the video game based on his show – Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol is the weakest among the contestants competing for your vocal cords. It’s not the song selection or the presentation, frankly, but the fact that Idol tries to incorporate commentary from the show’s trio of pixelated judges – and that six times out of 10, that commentary is wildly off-base. Let’s see: The score and the crowd reaction say you just nailed your performance, and you’re on the receiving end of another poisonous Cowell bon mot. Dude, sometimes cruel to be kind just ain’t worth the time.

Which brings us, finally, to Rock Band. Arguably, the ability to break out your best Rivers Cuomo whine on “Say It Ain’t So” is the least interesting/appealing part of diving into the ongoing phenomenon that Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein dubbed “a theater group set to music.” And it’s not just because the game’s focus on a realistic band experience includes loud audience singalongs. Somehow, there’s just not as much drama in hitting the high notes in Garbage’s “I Think I’m Paranoid” as there is in nailing the fast-break drum solo on expert. Let’s put it this way – it’s not generally the vocalist who’s causing the band to fail a song.

And yet you can argue that rockin’ the USB mic in Rock Band is closer, in a very limited, very plastic kind of way, to the sort of ersatz fame we’re all reaching for when we raise the microphone and draw a deep breath in the first place.

More by Aaron R. Conklin


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