By Randi Reed
Editor’s Note: We ran the original version of this article at our previous URL in 1999. Thanks to On-Air with Ryan Seacrest for the idea of revising it.
Aside from off-key singing, the biggest blunder aspiring singers make in a talent competition or audition is choosing the wrong song. The right song can help make your audition the most memorable of the day, and the wrong one can kill your chances. Here’s a step-by-step guide to the art of song casting.
Know Yourself and the Judges
1. Know yourself as an artist, and learn how to step back and take an objective look at your vocal strengths and weaknesses. This is what the judges and potential talent buyers will do. Which do you have more of: range, or power? Which comes more easily to you? Which is stronger: the upper or lower end of your range?
2. Know what your voice does when you’re nervous. Do you tend to sing sharp, or do you have trouble with low notes when you’re nervous? Nerves can highlight your trouble area, so choose the range and key of your song accordingly.
3. Know the details of the audition or competition you’re going for. Is there a list of songs you must choose from? How many minutes or bars do you get for your audition time? (If the audition is only a partial song, choose something without a slow build up.) Is the audition with music, or without? A capella auditions call for a different strategy; when there’s no accompaniment, songs with prominent melody lines work best. When it comes to singing a capella, up-tempo songs are iffy, and complicated, rhythm-heavy songs don’t usually work. A strong melody line will guide you.
4. If the audition is accompanied, with what kind of instruments? If it’s a talent competition, will there be a band, or will you bring your own backing track? If a band, what instruments? Will there be backup vocalists? Who’s the musical director? Look up his/her credits to see what kind of music the M.D. is most comfortable with.
5. Know who the judges are and read their bios and lists of credits. Avoid songs the judges performed or worked on, as well as songs by artists the judges worked with. You want to create memories of your own performance of the song, not make someone else remember their experience with the song.
General Guidelines for Choosing Songs for a Singing Competition or Audition:
1. Unless they’re professional musicians, your mom and grandma, bless them, are usually not the best judges of what songs are good for you. Mom’s and Grandma’s love is not only blind, it’s often deaf as well, and while they always have a favorite song they like to hear, it’s rarely right for the singer at hand. Let your vocal coach or other unbiased person aid you in song selection–preferably someone connected to the music industry, since that’s who you’re trying to impress at the audition or competition.
2. Cho0se a song that fits your image, because the judges will see you before they hear you. As we’ve seen many times on American Idol, a guy in a business suit singing rock and roll doesn’t work in an audition…unless you’re an actor auditioning to play a nerdy accountant who thinks he’s cool.
3. Avoid imitations of your favorite artists or artists you sound like…even if your friends and family love it. Just because you sound like Stevie Wonder doesn’t mean you should sing a Stevie Wonder song; we already have a Stevie Wonder in the music industry, and he does Stevie better than anyone. Brad Pitt looks like Robert Redford, but he didn’t get his success in Hollywood by playing Redford’s character “Hubbell Gardner” in The Way We Were remakes.
4. If you have a favorite artist whose songs fit your style (but your voice is not an imitation of that artist), it’s often better to choose a really good album cut instead of the hit single. This way, there are fewer memories already attached to the song in the judges’ minds. For example, let’s say you love Bon Jovi ballads, and they fit your voice and style. “It’s Hard Letting You Go” may be more effective than the better-known “Bed of Roses,” because the judges won’t be waiting to see if you live up to the way Jon hits the notes on “…tonight I sleep on a bed of nails.”
5. Look for songs outside your musical genre that can be reworked to suit your style and image. Remember Ruben Studdard’s unexpected, wonderfully-executed version of “Sweet Home Alabama” on American Idol? Carrie Underwood’s country interpretation of Tiffany’s “Could’ve Been” was another great example of how to handle a cover tune in a competition.
6. Potential sources for song ideas: Keep your ears open while watching TV. Listen to musical genres you don’t usually listen to to get ideas for songs that could be rearranged in your style. Check out classic rock, jazz, and country music channels and radio stations, and raid the music collections of family and friends…especially those of a different generation or who listen to a different type of music than you.
7. Plan to be creative with your song. Use a new arrangement or do variations on the chorus to make the song your own. Note-for-note karaoke renditions of the original artist’s version are boring, so give yourself an edge. (Note: This does not mean Mariah and Christina-style runs. Runs have been so overdone by others, they’re no longer creative.)
8. Choose a song that you really love…or in the case of an audition or competition where you choose a song from a list, at least strongly like. If even that’s a stretch, think of the song as a good friend who can help you win.
Some musical and technical considerations:
1. The song should not be too broad in range, but not too safe. To compensate for your nerves, the song shouldn’t be too rangey–the broader the range, the more chance of error. But don’t go too safe. If you’re a power belter you can sometimes get away with a little safer song, provided there are some big notes to belt out.
2. Consider what might happen if venue acoustics or sound quality are poor and you can’t hear yourself for a second. Your song choice should hold up. (For example, Jessica Simpson’s “I Wanna Love You Forever” leaves no room for vocal error. You’re either on the note, or you’re not.)
3. If there will be a live band accompanying everyone in a competition, anticipate the worst and consider how the song will hold up if it gets a really awful arrangement. With all due respect, some talent show band song arrangements rival the world’s worst lounge acts. (Arrangements for rock songs tend to suffer the worst.)
Getting closer to choosing your song? Now consider the lyrics:
1. Choose a song that has lyrics you relate to and feel. Your job as a singer is to make the audience feel it, too. To paraphrase our webmaster, if you can’t sing a breakup song like your heart is breaking, don’t bother. It’s not just about the notes.
2. Choose a song with lyrics that are age appropriate. The 14 year-old girl singing Blondie’s “Call Me” on a kids’ talent show made us very uncomfortable.
3. If the original artist is a different gender than you and you’re straight, will the lyrics work with a simple change of he/she pronouns? Or is major surgery necessary? (To either you or the lyrics–neither option is good.)
4. Keep in mind that changing gender of the lyrics usually strengthens the meaning of the song. This can be good or bad. One of the most poignant live performances I’ve ever seen was at an awards show when Sting sang “Someone to Watch Over Me”–a song typically performed by a female singer. But because of still-lingering sexual stereotypes, women should proceed with caution: a lyric that sounds sexy on a guy will have an even sexier connotation when done by a female voice…and may offend a conservative audience. Think it over carefully, and be sure of the image you want to portray.
Songs to Avoid in singing competitions:
1. Singing a Celine Dion song is the kiss of death in a singing competition, as eliminated American Idol contestant Melinda Lira found out. Unless the singer is ten times better than Celine Dion–nearly impossible, since Celine’s notes are so technically perfect–the judges will constantly be thinking how much better Celine hits each note. If you have a vocal coach who encourages you to sing Celine Dion in any public setting, fire him or her immediately; that coach knows nothing about the music business and is not helping you. We love Celine; we hate hearing people butcher her vocals.
2. While not as technically demanding, Elton John songs are notoriously difficult to sing, because Elton writes music for his own unique phrasing and pronunciation. When attempting an Elton John cover song, there are two options for approaching it. Either you can sing a copycat karaoke vocal–which lacks originality and sometimes sounds really odd if the singer isn’t British–or you can try to vocalize it differently, which rarely works due to the unique phrasing that’s already so deeply ingrained in Elton John melodies. We adore Elton, but you’re best off choosing something else.
3. Also difficult: Billy Joel songs are particularly tricky for women, because they were written for his voice, which has a very broad range. (Try singing “Honesty” in the privacy of your own home and you’ll see what I mean.)
4. Avoid classic signature songs such as “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” “Twist and Shout,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” There’s no way you can make them your own, and major artists don’t even try. (When playing “Twist and Shout,” for fun during encores, Jon Bon Jovi publicly acknowledges this fact by doing the Paul McCartney head shake. Jon’s famous and can get away with being cute. You’re not there yet.)
Within all these parameters is the perfect song for your voice–a song that will bring you joy. Now that you know what to do, have fun discovering it!