Ah yes, reality singing competitions have been an integral proponent of television for the last 15 or so years. Everyday Joes like you and me blessed with the voice of an angel battling it out with fellow vocalists for a chance at a record contract or to showcase their talents before a national audience. We all know American Idol, The Voice, and X-Factor have been huge ratings powerhouses for both Fox and NBC respectively. In the time before people all over the world were arguing whether Kelly Clarkson or Fantasia Barrino was the better singer, there was a sing-off series that aired on MTV in the late 90s and early 2000s that I watched everyday as a teenager.
MTV’s reluctance to air music videos has been a complaint that’s plagued the network for years and years but it was in 1998 when the criticism first came to light. The network answered by debuting several music-oriented programs, the two most popular being Total Request Live and a show entitled Say What?.
While TRL, a live show counting down the 10 most requested music videos of the day, went on to become one of the biggest productions in the network’s history, Say What? sadly didn’t have similar success until it spawned a more popular program later that year. Now Say What? was a program where music videos would air with the lyrics on-screen so the audience can sing along. These songs were usually ones where the lyrics were inaudible IE: R.E.M.’s It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) and Snow’s Informer. This idea eventually spun into Say What? Karaoke, a 30-minute show airing every weekday after TRL. Hosted by former MTV VJ, Dave Holmes, this singing competition pitted three opposing contestants who each sang in front of a panel of three judges. Sound familiar? Well, it was a bit different than the tune-oriented shows you know of today. First, the singers would belt out a popular song of their choice then when round two came along, they would return with a new look and spin a wheel Price is Right style and have to sing whatever it landed on. Sometimes, the contestants would nail it, others looked lost and they were soon shown the door. Whoever won at the end of each episode would return at the end of the season for a huge championship tournament to crown the ultimate karaoke champion.
I’m not much of a karaoke singer but on the rare occasions where I do indulge, I get pretty into it. Performing in front of people, no matter how silly you might think you look, is a pretty damn good feeling. I tend to sing all types of music and one thing that annoyed me about Say What? Karaoke is that only the popular hits at the time were sung. Yeah, you might get the occasional timeless classic (including R.E.M.’s tongue twisting anthem or a Michael Jackson ditty) but for the most part, mostly just pop hits from the late 90s. From my recollection, Metallica’s Enter Sandman was the only hard rock song ever performed on the show. I realize that Slayer or Faith No More don’t possess a catalogue of songs that are popular during karaoke outings but how was I supposed to know that as a teen? I remember watching each episode and thinking to myself “man, I could totally do better than most of these clowns if I sang some heavy metal!”
And the judges? These weren’t your run of the mil executives from the music industry, no sir. These experts ranged from MTV personnel, boy band members, models, and actors. A Man Show-era Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla appeared as judges at one point. A pre-fame Chris Pratt acted as a judge in one of the later seasons as well and a teenaged Shia LaBeouf even sat on the panel when he was still Louis Stevens on the Disney Channel show, Even Stevens. Each one judged on performance, style, and accuracy. That didn’t really matter though since the judges gave the benefit of the doubt in most cases and gave high scores to a lot of people who didn’t deserve such.
The contestants were something else. A lot of them couldn’t sing to save their life and relied on their onstage antics or personality to get them far. It worked for some but others not so much. I remember one specific episode where one of the competitors was this shy gentleman with glasses who ended up rocking the house with a cover of Smash Mouth’s All-Star but when he returned for the second round, all he did to change his look was simply add a vest to his attire. I was thinking “really dude? That’s the best you can come up with?” There was also this dude who wore pants and later stripped them down to shorts when doing a fiery cover of Dangerous by Busta Rhymes.
The show ran for five years. I pretty much stopped watching regularly in 2000 or so but would still occasionally catch it here and there. New Kids on the Block member, Joey McIntyre, hosted the show in 2001, right before his stint on the Fox drama, Boston Public and actress Danielle Fishel of Boy Meets World fame co-hosted until the final episode in 2003. While primarily filmed at MTV Studios in New York City, the show would often shoot on location in various vacation hotspots such as the Bahamas or Key West, Florida where the network would often film programming on location during spring break or summer. A bunch of hopefuls singing their hearts out to a nice backdrop of the ocean was a great visual.
For the record, and I’m sure this won’t surprise any of you, but my all-time favorite episode of this show was when WWE took over in the summer of 1999. To help hype up their annual Summerslam event, several wrestlers took part in the competition. Former grappler, D’Lo Brown was up first tackling Michael Jackson’s Beat It then Droz unexpectedly stepped up with Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca before hilariously butchering the aforementioned Enter Sandman in round two. Finally, the Godfather showed up with his entourage of ladies who led a melody of TLC’s No Scrubs. The funniest part of that particular episode was when television personality, Matt Pinfield, tried to give D’Lo a low score on his accuracy and Brown scared him into changing it to a higher number. That was great!
Since nothing can be left alone these days, the series was revamped and brought back in 2007 under the title SWK 2.0. It was presented by Saturday Night Live writer, Mikey Day, and featured the exact same format as its predecessor. It thankfully didn’t last long and only the original Say What? Karaoke is remembered when it’s recalled in various nostalgia conversations and blogs.
All in all, it was a mindlessly entertaining way to kill 30 minutes while trying to do homework every week in middle school.