When Karaoke Kills: Looking Into the “My Way Killings”

“And now, the end is near…”

You might look at Frank Sinatra’s ever-so-popular song a little bit differently after you realize that his 1969 classic has been the reason for at least 13 deaths. One of Sinatra’s signature songs, My Way, happens to be a popular choice for karaoke singers. Between 2002 and 2018, for some reason, taking on the classic tune in karaoke bars proved to be a deadly choice.

Frank Sinatra / Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra / Karaoke singers / A Karaoke bar
Source: Getty Images

According to the International Business Times, at least a dozen people lost their lives in what has now been dubbed the “My Way Killings” – a phenomenon that took place in the Philippines. That first line in the lyrics is a little bit creepier now, huh?

A Place Where Karaoke Is King

Filipinos are serious about their Karaoke. It’s a country where Karaoke is king… apparently. Every district has ten or so karaoke bars, each one hammering it out until well into the early hours. But, of course, the experience isn’t complete without alcohol, and when you combine passionate amateur singers and booze – and God forbid you sing off tune – chances are someone’s going to get hurt.

A woman sings Karaoke on stage at a bar.
Photo by Derek Davis/Portland Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

That’s the general vibe at karaoke bars in the country. Now, when it comes to Sinatra’s My Way, some of those rowdy singers have ended up dead. Apparently, one of the biggest mistakes a Filipino can make is singing off-key. It’s evidently unforgivable, and yes, worthy of death.

13 Deaths in 16 Years

At least that’s what people discovered when a wave of karaoke-related killings occurred between 2002 and 2012. Within ten years, 12 deaths were reported (there may have been even more) in connection with singing Frank Sinatra’s hit song. While some individuals were killed for singing out of tune, others were taken out for hogging the microphone, and there were even a few who were killed for singing the song for hours, again and again, and again.

Frank Sinatra singing at Madison Square Garden.
Photo by Art Zelin/Getty Images

To give a little perspective, singing one song with a karaoke machine costs what would be the equivalent of ten cents. It’s an affordable pastime in a country where 80% of its people earn less than $2 a day.

Don’t Sing Out of Tune

In 2007, 43-year-old Robilito Ortega, a security guard at one of these karaoke bars (in San Mateo, Rizal), shot a 29-year-old man singing My Way. The man was reportedly singing off-key, and since he just wouldn’t stop singing, the guard lost his sh*t, pulled out a .38 caliber pistol, and shot the guy.

Two women are singing Karaoke.
Photo by Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The victim, Romy Baligula, was halfway through his rendition of the song when the guard yelled out that he was off-key. But Baligula ignored the complaint and kept on belting it out. That’s when he got a bullet to the chest. As Baligula was dying on the karaoke stage, Ortega was detained by an off-duty police officer. True story. And this is just one incident…

Meanwhile, in China

These killings aren’t just limited to the Philippines. They also happened in China and even occurred within families! In 2012, in China’s central city of Xi’an, a family went out for a night at a local karaoke bar. A four-year-old boy took to the microphone and was singing along to My Way, as his parents watched proudly.

An Asian girl stands in a karaoke room.
Photo by Jean Chung for The Washington Post/Getty Images

Two of the boys’ uncles, however, weren’t having it. They accused the boy’s parents of raising a spoiled child – a “Little Emperor,” as the Chinese say. The argument got heated, and soon enough, there was pushing, shoving, and fists in the air.

The Song Even Comes Between Families

At this point, the boy’s older cousin fled to the nearby noodle shop, where he worked and came back with a meat cleaver. He attacked the two uncles with the cleaver, striking each one more than ten times. Both men died at the scene.

A woman sings karaoke intensely on stage.
Photo by Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Back in Manila, Philippines, a woman named Alisa Escanlar recalled an incident where her uncle, a cop, was listening to his friend sing My Way at a local bar. When he heard someone sitting at a nearby table begin to laugh, he took out his revolver. The people fled, but Escanlar and her relatives decided to ban the Sinatra song from their own karaoke parties.

It’s Been Banned in Many Bars

The song has actually been banned in many karaoke bars throughout East Asia. Bar owners chose to remove the song from the jukebox or “videoke” machine. There are people who won’t even sing the song in public, and if they want to, they need to get a private room at a karaoke bar so as to not trigger any angry Sinatra fanatics.

A woman sings her favorite song at a local karaoke club.
Photo by Ryan Pyle/Corbis/Getty Images

In 2010, The New York Times interviewed several Filipino karaoke lovers who speculated that the “swaggering, unapologetic nature” of the lyrics played a role. A 63-year-old Filipino barber from General Santos named Rodolfo Gregorio told The Times that he “used to like My Way, but after all the trouble, I stopped singing it. You can get killed.”

What Is It About My Way Specifically?

The Times then reported that the karaoke violence tends to stem from anger over poorly done, tuneless performances of that song. But this all begs the question: Why My Way? What is it about Sinatra’s greatest hit that makes people so possessive?

An Asian man sings karaoke.
Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

“The trouble with My Way,” Gregorio explained, “is that everyone knows it, and everyone has an opinion.” That’s one theory. Butch Albarracin, the owner of a singing school in Manila, had his own explanation. “‘I did it my way’ – it’s so arrogant,” he said.

Forgetting About Their Problems

“The lyrics evoke feelings of pride and arrogance in the singer as if you’re somebody when you’re really nobody. It covers up your failures. That’s why it leads to fights,” Albarracin stated. When you think about it, Sinatra’s lyrics don’t really help the situation.

A group of friends stand and sing karaoke.
Photo by Michael Bezjian/WireImage/Getty Images

Rolan B. Tolentino, who works as a pop culture expert at the University of the Philippines, said the song’s “triumphalist” nature might trigger violence. The lyrics reveal a side of Sinatra that’s unapologetic and pretty much arrogant. Even Sinatra himself wasn’t a fan of the song…

Sinatra Didn’t Even Like the Song

His daughter, Tina Sinatra, revealed that her father found the song “self-serving and self-indulgent. He didn’t like it. That song stuck, and he couldn’t get it off his shoe.” We can only imagine what he would say if he were alive to hear of the killings.

The song, which was written by Paul Anka, appears to advocate living life without regrets. But it could also be seen as a song about death…

Frank Sinatra performs on television.
Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images

“And now, the end is near
And so, I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.”

Maybe It’s the Culture

There are those who blame the violent nature of Filipino culture. “The Philippines is a very violent society, so karaoke only triggers what already exists here when certain social rules are broken,” said Tolentino. Vern de la Pena, a musicologist from the University of the Philippines, said, “Singing My Way is a magical moment that is separate from their ordinary life.”

Filipino men sing karaoke at the bar.
Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images

After all, as The Times noted, The Philippines is a poor nation with over one million illegal guns in circulation. “Here in the slum areas, when they have problems, they drink a little and sing. For a moment, they forget about their problems,” Erlu Barcarcel, a clothes vendor, told Reuters.

Just When It Seemed to Be Over…

Just when the murders seemed to come to a halt, another one took place in 2018. A 60-year-old man was stabbed by his 28-year-old neighbor during a birthday party in Zamboanga del Norte. The senior reportedly grabbed the mic from his neighbor right before My Way was about to play.

The front entrance to a Karaoke bar.
Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images

The neighbor initiated a fistfight with the older man, which ended with a stabbing to the senior’s gut. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Later that same year, Congress passed a bill proposing a curfew on Karaoke, which would (hopefully) lessen alcohol-influenced violence.

The Devil’s Interval

Yes, things have gotten way out of hand. But as it turns out, singing has been taken (way too) seriously for many, many years. Back in the olden days, when the Church controlled everything, the interval of the tri-tone, e.g., C to F#, was called the “devil’s interval.”

Choirboys rehearse Christmas carols.
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

In other words, singing, playing or composing it was strictly forbidden. But this is a thing of the past, obviously. This devilish interval is the very lifeline of modern jazz and the Great American Songbook. But, oddly enough, this interval doesn’t occur at all in My Way.

Could There Be Hidden Satanic Messages?

A journalist by the name of Su Terry went ahead and tested out a theory that perhaps there was some unknown satanic message embedded in the song. Using her DJ turntable with reverse control (so she can play it backward), she got to work.

A photo of Su Terry with her clarinet.
Su Terry. Source: Facebook

She reverse-played Sinatra’s version of My Way (it was originally performed in 1967 by Claude François) from The Main Event album, which was recorded live at Madison Square Garden in 1974. No, she didn’t detect any workings of the devil in the recording.

So. Much. Violence

Here’s another strange fact: A Japanese band named Kishidan referenced the My Way phenomenon. The rock band that typically sings in Japanese covered Sinatra’s hit and made a music video in which the singer is shot multiple times while singing the song.

The members of Kishidan pose for photographs.
Photo by Ten Asia/Multi-Bits/Getty Images

It is possible, however, that it was actually a reference to Sid Vicious’s video for his own cover of My Way where he shoots several audience members for his big finish. So much violence, right? Well, if you know of the Sex Pistols’ frontman, it should come as no surprise.

Sid Was Pretty Vicious With His Cover

Sid Vicious made a punk rock rendition of the song, changing a lot of the song’s lyrics and also speeding it up. In 2007, Paul Anka said he was “somewhat destabilized by the Sex Pistols’ version. It was kind of curious, but I felt Sid Vicious was sincere about it.”

Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen sit in their home.
Sid Vicious, Nancy Spungen. Photo by Watal Asanuma/Shinko Music/Getty Images

Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (who later killed him) changed the words when he recorded it, adding some pretty colorful swear words. Vicious’s lyrics of a “prat who wears hats” was an in-joke directed towards his bandmate Johnny Rotten, who apparently liked wearing different kinds of hats that he would buy at garage sales.

The Sinatra Doctrine

My Way didn’t just affect the murder rate; it also impacted international politics. In 1989, as Mikhail Gorbachev started putting forth reforms that led to the breakup of the USSR, he announced the “Sinatra Doctrine.”

Mikhail Gorbachev sits in front of a photograph of the Brandenburg Gate.
Mikhail Gorbachev. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Up until that point, Eastern Europe was living under the Brezhnev Doctrine, where Moscow controlled the affairs of countries under the Iron Curtain to keep Communist solidarity. But now, Gorbachev was doing it “His Way,” thanks to a little inspiration from Ol’ Blue Eyes. In response, Poland introduced its first democratically elected president, Lech Wałęsa, who ran under the slogan, “I don’t want to, but I have to.”

Who Knew Karaoke Was So Dangerous?

Incidents of “karaoke rage” have been documented outside of East Asia. Other cases of singers being harassed, assaulted or killed during a performance have been reported in a number of countries, including America.

A couple sings Karaoke on stage.
Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images

In 2007, a karaoke singer in Seattle, Washington, was attacked by a woman who desperately wanted him to stop singing Coldplay’s Yellow. In 2013, an American was stabbed to death when he refused to stop singing in a karaoke bar in Krabi, Thailand. You hear that, folks? If it hasn’t been clear up until now, try to find other forms of entertainment when traveling in East Asia.

A John Denver Classic Also Took a Hit

Let’s just keep the ball rolling for a bit longer here. In 2009, a man was arrested in Thailand for shooting eight people to death, including his own brother-in-law, in a dispute over renditions of John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads.

John Denver poses for a portrait in his hotel room
Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images

So, it looks like Sinatra isn’t the only one. There was also an incident in 2008 when a man at a coffee shop in Malaysia hogged the karaoke mike so long that he was stabbed to death by other people there (who clearly wanted their time on the stage).

A Little About the Song Itself

Paul Anka purchased the rights for the tune Comme d’habitude by French singer Claude François for a mere dollar. Anka then wrote it specifically for Frank Sinatra. When he first heard Sinatra’s recording, he got pretty emotional.

A portrait of Paul Anka.
Photo by William Lovelace/Daily Express/Getty Images

“I flew out to Vegas where he was at Caesars. I played it to him. I knew that by the reaction he gave me, he was going to do it. I’m in New York two months later. The phone rings, Mr. Sinatra on the phone. He says, ‘Kid! Listen to this.’ Took the phone, put it up to the speaker. I heard ‘My Way’ for the first time, and I started crying.”

This is how it happened…

Look, Guys! I Did It My Way, Okay?

Like many from the World War II generation, Sinatra felt like the culture was slipping past him. By 1969, he had just gotten past his Vegas Rat Pack years, and rock music was now dominant. By the end of an extremely difficult year in America, on December 30, 1968, Sinatra walked into a recording studio. (More on his brief fall from grace, soon…)

Frank Sinatra sings a music studio during a recording session.
Photo by Murray Garrett/Getty Images

NPR’s Jason King, a music professor, sees Sinatra as having been a kind of “figurehead of American culture basically asserting his Americanness in a kind of defiant way.” He was essentially telling the world that he did it the way that he wanted to do it (thanks to Anka’s lyrics, of course).

Sinatra Wanted Out of the Business

Comme d’habitude, a French pop song, was a track that Anka described as “a bad record, but there was something in it.” A few years after acquiring the rights to it, he found himself at dinner with Sinatra and some of Blue Eyes’s mafia buddies in Florida.

Paul Anka kisses Frank Sinatra on the cheek.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

At dinner, Sinatra told Anka about his desire to quit show business. He said to his friend, “I’m quitting the business. I’m sick of it; I’m getting the hell out.” Anka took this remark as inspiration, and in his hotel room (either that night or a few months later – accounts differ), he composed the lyrics to My Way.

Looks Like the End Is Near

“And now, the end is near
And so, I face the final curtain.”

Anka recalled the night he wrote the song. It was one in the morning; he sat down in his hotel room and looked at the old IBM electric typewriter in front of him and asked himself, “If Frank were writing this, what would he say?”

Paul Anka sits at his piano, composing a song.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

That’s when he wrote the first line of the song. “I read a lot of periodicals, and I noticed everything was ‘my this’ and ‘my that.’ We were in the ‘me generation,’ and Frank became the guy for me to use to say that” Anka recalled.

He Lived a Life That’s Full

“My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full.”

When you think about it, the words really do resonate with Sinatra’s eventful life. He did everything that could be done – he sold 150 million records, won Grammys, Oscars and Golden Globes.

Frank Sinatra escorts First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy up the stairs.
Frank Sinatra, Jacqueline Kennedy. Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

He also had a full personal life with three kids, and he was heavily involved in politics and hung out with the Mafia. The truth is, Frank Sinatra really lived life his way. He said himself once: “I’m not looking for the secret to life… I just go on from day to day, taking what comes.”

Talk About Regrets

“Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do.”

“I’d never before written something so chauvinistic, narcissistic, in-your-face and grandiose,” Paul Anka said of the song. But he was writing in the persona of his hero. At the time, in the late ‘60s, Sinatra himself probably wasn’t feeling like much of a hero, though.

A portrait of Frank Sinatra.
Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

As the Rat Pack was falling apart, the FBI was hounding him over his mob connections, and his marriage to Mia Farrow was on the rocks. When a Las Vegas hotel manager suddenly cut off his gambling credit (due to his heavy debt), Sinatra stormed out.

The Headlines Were Humiliating

After rushing out of the hotel, he took a nearby golf cart, pushed Farrow into the seat beside him and drove it through the hotel’s front window. The hotel manager then punched the singer with one hook in the face, taking out the caps in his front teeth.

A close-up of Frank Sinatra.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The headlines were obviously humiliating. This is one of Sinatra’s regrets. The 51-year-old then told his 25-year-old buddy Anka that he was fed up. “I’m gonna do one more album, and then I’m out of here. You never wrote me that song you always promised. Don’t take too long!”

The Original Songwriter Has His Own Regrets

Sinatra may have some regrets of his own, but what about the songwriter who wrote the original My Way (Comme d’habitude) and then sold it for a measly dollar? French songwriter Jacques Revaux spoke about his regrets over the song.

Jacques Revaux sits during an event.
Photo by Serge BENHAMOU/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

He laughed, “I don’t even have a photo with Frank Sinatra.” The songwriter scribbled down some lyrics about a couple falling out of love titled – he called it “For Me” (in his own English) in 1967 when he was 27.

He Agreed to Share Credit

Revaux bumped into French megastar Claude François in Cannes that summer. François teased Revaux for never having written a song for him. Revaux then picked up his guitar, and the rest is history. François then recorded the song as Comme d’habitude (which means “As Usual”), but Revaux got a call from his editor just before it was released.

Claude François sings on stage.
Claude François. Photo by Erling MANDELMANN /Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

He was told that François wanted his name on all the songs (on that album) and was asked if he could share credit with the singer. Revaux agreed but said later, “At the time, we didn’t know what we were doing.”

Then Paul Anka Came Along

That summer, the ex-Canadian teen idol Paul Anka heard the song during his vacation in France. After buying the song and getting Sinatra on board, he was amazed that his buddy nailed it “in one take.” Today, My Way is the most played song at funerals in the world.

Sinatra is rehearsing his singing backstage.
Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images

“My only regret is that I disappeared as the composer, as far as the public was concerned,” Revaux lamented. When he first heard Sinatra’s version, he was “happy it was Sinatra, but shame on me,” Revaux confessed, having failed to realize it was a masterpiece.

He Used Words He Would Never Use

“Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out.”

Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin pose together.
Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin. Photo by Jack Albin/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anka said that when he was writing this song, he used words he “would never use,” like “I ate it up and spit it out.” But that’s the way Sinatra talked, he explained. “I used to be around steam rooms with the Rat Pack guys,” Anka recalled. He said how these men would like to talk like “Mob guys,” even though, in reality, they would have been “scared of their own shadows.”

He’s Had His Share of Losing

“I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside
I find it all so amusing.”

Sinatra obviously wasn’t always on top – he had his bad days, like the period of time when he lost his voice, and his career slumped. There was a point there where it looked like his singing career was over around the beginning of the 1950s.

Frank Sinatra, as Angelo Maggio, and Montgomery Clift, as Robert E Lee Prewitt, in a scene from 'From Here to Eternity'.
Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

But in 1953, he came soaring back into fame with the film From Here to Eternity. A month later, he signed a seven-year record deal with Atlantic Records, and the album Songs for Young Lovers was a big success.

It’s a “Man’s Anthem”

My Way holds the record for sticking around on the U.K. top 40 singles – for 75 weeks. It was also a major success in the U.S., peaking at #27 in May 1969. Tina Sinatra, who revealed how her father really felt about the song, was just 20 years old when the song was recorded.

Frank Sinatra and his daughter Tina Sinatra are on set for a taping.
Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images

She, for one, loves her dad’s performance of the song, but when it comes to the lyrics, she’s not so excited about them (sorry, Anka). “I can’t explain it except, organically, it’s a man’s anthem. It’s not a woman’s anthem.” (Sorry, ladies.)

Inflating His Ego

Will Friedwald, who has written many books about the American Songbook as well as Frank Sinatra, thinks of My Way as “an anthem of self-aggrandizement that, up until that point, was everything Sinatra wasn’t.” The author says it’s a song that really inflates Sinatra – blowing up his persona to “stadium-size proportions.”

Frank Sinatra attends the 27th Academy Awards.
Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But the thing that people liked about Sinatra before My Way was the intimacy – the idea that this is a guy who experienced life and love the same way we mere mortals have. My Way eventually came to resonate with all walks of life – from punk rockers to karaoke singers.

Jay-Z Did It His Way, Too

In today’s world, artists like Kanye West and Jay-Z have Frank Sinatra somewhere in their personas. Jay-Z even has a song called I Did It My Way, which samples the song. In his lyrics, Jay-Z actually likens himself to Sinatra.

Jay-Z poses on stage with sunglasses and his arms crossed.
Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Ayana Contreras, a cultural historian and a radio producer, spoke of all those karaoke singers choosing My Way as their favorite song to belt it out to – and remarked that they, too, are projecting an image of their idealized selves. At the end of the day, it’s all about ego. After all, we all just want to do things our own way, right?

The Original Singer Died From Electrocution

In 1978, about a decade after My Way was recorded, Claude François, a leading popular singer in France, was electrocuted in his home. The 39-year-old was changing a lamp bulb in his bathroom and got electrocuted as a result.

Claude François sits on the grass by the river.
Photo by STILLS/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

The police reported that he had just filled his bathtub with water. He was rushed to a hospital and died shortly after. The French singer was born in Egypt and achieved fame in 1960 with his pop music. His legacy will live on via My Way and his other hits.