Television

Netflix’s Karaoke Competition Show Misunderstands the True Art of Karaoke

Burgess holds his mic up from center stage, various contests arrayed in the background behind him.
Karaoke has never been about hitting all of the right notes. Netflix

“There’s only one judge on this show, and it ain’t me,” host Tituss Burgess says in the premiere of Netflix’s karaoke competition series Sing On. Every performance on the show, he goes on to explain, is rated in real time on the screen by “vocal analyzer” software, which purports to determine which of the six contestants most accurately replicated the original performance of, say, “Chandelier.” The performers who score highest move on to the next round, while a low score can get you kicked off, losing your chance at a jackpot in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The show is fun enough. Burgess is a high-energy host, unafraid to mug for the camera or wear silly costumes. And the gimmick of the contestants not knowing in advance when they’ll be singing. What the show is not, however—despite the lyrics displayed on big TV screens to standards like Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” and Mariah Carey’s “Hero”—is great karaoke.

That’s because the very things that make for a thrilling karaoke performance—bravery, flair, passion, and a willingness to make the song your own—are in direct opposition to what a science-adjacent “vocal analyzer” measures. We’ve all been in karaoke rooms where the system gives a singer a mediocre rating (“64 percent!”) that bears no resemblance to the electrifying and funny performance we just witnessed. Slavish fealty to the original does not good karaoke make!

On Sing On, the result is that singers who really cut loose—honestly, the only way to make a karaoke performance of “Dynamite” interesting—get penalized. In the series premiere, the first-round song is Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger.” The winner of the round is Ceci, an Uber driver and perfectly good singer who did, indeed, most closely approximate the processed, clipped vocals of the original. Meanwhile, poor Telvin, a stylist whose lively, free-flowing performance was about a hundred times better than Adam Levine’s ever could be, scored 38 percent. “If you wanna bank money,” Burgess warns, “stick to the melody!” A better recipe for boring karaoke I could not imagine.

On Sing On, the dominance of the vocal analyzer leads, predictably, to performers singing carefully, not daringly. Enunciation and precision are the name of the game, not emotion or commitment. As each episode goes on, you see the performers who manage to stay on stage getting more and more cautious, playing to the software, not the crowd. Indeed, it’s disheartening that every time the crowd goes crazy for a particularly well-sung line, we the viewers watch the singer’s accuracy percentage drop precipitously.

This dependence on objective scoring makes the actual experience of watching the show way less exciting than any random karaoke night at your local bar. During each performance, the vocal analyzer scrolls left to right across the bottom of the screen, showing us every note that the singer didn’t quite nail. The result is that we end up watching the scoreboard, not the game. In this way, an episode of Sing On feels less like a great karaoke night and more like a video game—but not even playing a video game, just sitting in the rec room while someone else plays Rock Band.

In most rounds, after the singer with the highest score is declared “safe,” the remaining contestants vote one person off the stage. The unwelcome result: Most contestants vote for the person they believe to be the stiffest competition—usually, the person whom their eyes, ears, and heart tell them gave the best performance. That means that the most exciting karaoke singers are often gone by Round 3, which is how you end up with situations like a trio of basically decent dudes standing on a stage picking their way through “My Heart Will Go On.” (One of them, to his credit, does crush it.)

My frustration with Sing On came to a head in an episode devoted to ’80s songs, in which the final trio of contestants faced off on Heart’s “Alone,” which I consider to be the Platonic ideal of a karaoke song. Anyone can give an incredible karaoke performance of “Alone.” Sure, if you’re a belter, you can toss off Ann Wilson’s high notes. But any karaoke singer who is willing to emote, to feel deathless lines like “But the secret is still my own … and my love for you is still unknown” can take an audience on a wild ride.

On the ’80s episode of Sing On, a soldier-turned-nurse named Glynis absolutely wails on “Alone.” All night she’s been a spark plug—the best-dressed, liveliest, most committed performer on the show. (“I’ve jumped out of helicopters, so I’m not afraid right now,” she declares when Burgess asks if she’s feeling stage fright.) Her competitors, thin-voiced “country boy” Matt and good-natured Allison, retreat from the challenge of “Alone,” focused on holding the “golden notes” that might win them a thousand bucks. Glynis plays to the crowd, sings with feeling, and is immediately eliminated. Entirely adequate Matt and Allison move on.

Perhaps because U.S. producers identified this issue in the Spanish and German versions of the show from which Netflix has adapted the concept, Sing On does try to introduce the human element into its competition. In each episode, Burgess awards one “Tituss Prize” of $500 for what he deems the best performance. “It ain’t about singing,” he says, “so don’t be afraid to shake your boo-tay.” Unfortunately, when you’re desperately trying to nail notes at a rate .7 percent higher than your competitors, there’s no way you’re gonna mess that up by dancing. Very few boo-tays are shook on the stage of Sing On, leading Burgess, in one episode, to give the Tituss Prize to Matt, a delightful teacher in a sparkly sport coat who danced joyfully through Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling.” Unfortunately, Matt, the most fun contestant by far, couldn’t win the show, because he’d already been eliminated. He was dancing his ass off with the other losers in the balcony.