I was once in a school production of the popular musical Grease. During my years treading the boards I was very much in the mould of Daniel Day Lewis, so the transformation from a clumsy, waif-like boff to streetwise American proto-hipster was within my range and my performance was well received. There was, however, a catch. One of the downsides to landing a part in a musical is that you are often required to sing. Now, some would say my inability to hold a note would rule me out of contention entirely, but my talent was so vast (or the pool so shallow) that my teachers had to come to a ingenious solution. They simply suggested that I mime the singing bits. Perfect. A musical without live performance and a performer told he’s so shit he should probably just shut up. Inspiring. Leave no child behind.
You would therefore expect that video game karaoke would be somewhat unpopular round our way; seeing as it combines my greatest passion with my biggest weakness. It’s like a kryptonite cape; familiar and iconic but also constantly draining me of my life force. But my Singstar story is a tale of triumph over adversity. I once glanced through a collection of my PlayStation trophies and I discovered that my rarest was for Singstar. The criteria? Simply playing it for bloody ages. What I might lack in talent, I more than make up in persistence. Just give me a chance Simon, I won’t let you down. I always give 110%.
This thousand hour love story; told across generations; peppered with conflict, friendship and even a wedding; begins with a simple click of the fingers. A strong, purposeful beat delivered elegantly by a well-manicured hand. As the fingers slam upon the palm with a raw rhythmic power, the hand balls delicately around the wrist with an effortless flourish. The image has the grace of ballet but the sound has intensity of cannon fire. Surely this is a call to arms. What comes next will be remembered for eons:
For the uninitiated, these are the words of poet and academic Jamelia, taken from her seminal early 00’s release “Superstar”. This deeply provocative and timeless piece was chosen as the main theme for the first version of Singstar released on the PS2 back in 2004. Aside from its complex, layered exploration of all the things we’re all about, Superstar was also a perfect introduction to the world of competitive singing. In a game where sound was objectively valued and given a score, Superstar was ideal given that it was so monotone it could probably be performed to reasonable standard by Droopy the Dog.
You see, Singstar doesn’t care if you sound good, it just cares that you sound right. As the glittering bars fill the screen it patronisingly assures you that you’ve nailed it. You definitely sound just like Minnie Ripton. But as anyone nearby possessing a pair of ears will attest to, playing the footage back can be a dispiriting experience. Even if you hit all the right notes in the right order, you still sound awful you bloody drunk.
Which is where stage presence, a.k.a showing off, comes in. The PlayStation 3 version introduced the ability to record a short snippet of your performance which you could then play back at the end. The genius of this addition was that it gave you the heads up that it was coming so that you could prepare. Here it comes. Your spotlight.
My PS3 is filled to the brim with powerfully embarrassing ten second clips of myself, my wife and my close friends stumbling around living rooms briefly convinced of our own talent. Sofa cushions quickly appropriated into Jamiroquoi style hats. Scissor Sisters impressions that somehow manage to be more camp than the originals. You have not known pain until you’ve witnessed two nerds from East Anglia perform “Beep” by Will .I.Am and The Pussycat Dolls. Think you’ve reached peak cringe? Think again bitches. Here we all are making gang signs during Fix Up Look Sharp.
Great performances called for synchronisation. Teamwork. I consider Singstar to be one of the finest co-op games of all time. In duet mode, the score between you was shared and you would naturally assist one another by in one continuous feedback loop. Find yourself totally out of key in the chorus whilst your partner is nailing it, and a quick shift of concentration from what you’re seeing to what you’re hearing could find your voice clicking into place. Their enthusiasm, their passion and their enjoyment helped motivate too. Often hitting the right notes was just a case of giving it some welly. And with your high scores signed off with a photo of the victorious pair, there was plenty of scope for further shenanigans. The games unusual scoring system, where each song is capped at 10 000 points regardless of its difficulty, meant that perfection always felt tantalisingly within reach. A friend an I once agonisingly hit 9 800 on Supergrass’ Richard III. A mere 200 somethings from a technically perfect Gaz Coombes. It truly was the hardest thing you’ll never know.
Of course it wasn’t all about attributing value to art. Scores were all well and good but sometimes it was fun to just try and attempt something that was nigh on impossible to sing. “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys has some truly next level harmony shit going on. “Rock Me Amadeus” required you to learn how to rap in German on the fly. “Take on Me” had that winning combination of lulling you into a false sense of security during the verses before detonating your lungs during the chorus. But The Bees’ “Chicken Payback” was Singstar on Legendary mode. Its insanely difficult, tongue-twisting tale of financial transactions within the animal kingdom required the kind of concentration normally only seen in the operating theatre, and remained a firm favourite long after the wider world had completely forgotten about its existence.
Which is also the kind of thing that’s responsible for one of the games more obscure, accidental charms. Due to its relatively brief period of insane popularity, Singstar is a pretty good record of music during the mid to late 00’s. The mix of classics with what was popular at the time means that the likes of Bowie, Presley and The Rolling Stones rub shoulders with the “remember-thems?” of Orson, Ne-Yo and Daniel Bedingfield. Nostalgia in video games is generally restricted to the game itself. Unlike music, film or television, they very rarely reference outside of the medium. But Singstar has the early century coursing through its veins. It’s emotive of that time in a way that normally only music manages.
Of course, the relevance of this will largely depend on what you were doing at that time. Me? I’d just moved into a house with this lady I fancied and was enjoying those few blessed years of freedom before we lost our minds long enough to think it was a good idea to have children. Is it an exaggeration to say that our relationship was forged and cemented within Singstar? Possibly. But for a couple of years, this is what we did together. Our Friday nights were spent drinking every last remaining drop of liquid in the house whilst destroying the entire history of pop music. I’m not proud of it, but we got through several sets of neighbours during this time.
But those performances! The hours spent perfecting our Paula Abdul and MC Skat Cat or our Beyonce and The Other Two. The time we discovered that we could completely smash Parklife (this is probably largely down to the fact that I was born and raised in the same town as Blur and also that I’m married to Phil Daniels). I’m fairly certain the last time we saw my grandad before he died, we signed off our relationship by delighting him with a rendition of Dizzee Rascal’s “Bonkers”.
Or even that day we got married. Yes, I’m afraid to say, we’re one of those insufferable couples that did “a thing” at our wedding (although this was nearly ten years ago now so I consider us to be trailblazers in the world of lol random first dances). Run DMC’s “Tricky”, our go-to Singstar track, performed in full with the kind of enthusiasm you only get after a day of everyone doing everything you want and several thousand gallons of booze. We’d managed to keep it secret until the performance so I’m sure we delighted and confused in equal measure. Although I do remember my best man cheerfully shouting in my ear afterwards that it was “the best thing I have ever seen, which was probably the most important and life-changing thing anyone had said to me all day.
This is going to sound naff as all fuck, but in many ways Singstar is more than a game to me. It’s a collection of memories. I dread to think of the money I spent on it over the years in its numerous guises or on its “only a pound per song” DLC, but without it I might never have learned how to rap a rhyme that’s right on time. I might never have learned that I have exactly the same vocal range as Thom Yorke (honestly, it’s spooky. My scores were consistently the worst amongst my friends except for Radiohead where I would always inexplicably smash it). I almost certainly would never have discovered that Dido’s “Thank You” is immeasurably improved with the introduction of a foul-mouthed hype man. So if it’s all the same to you Mr Smith and Mrs Heare, I won’t be miming during Greased Lightning thank-you-very-much. I’m going to sing. And to Singstar;