I’ll never forget my first time.
The dark room, the sweaty palms, the burgeoning sense of shame that comes with the excitement of doing something mischievous. His name was Jon… Jon Bon Jovi. And there was no turning back after I declared, “I’ll be there for you… these five words I swear to you.”
That was the night I lost my karaoke virginity. As soon as I had belted out the final verse, my friends applauded loudly and commented, “Girl, you are a really good… writer.”
So fine, I had managed to shatter a few beer bottles and frightened every creature within a ten-mile radius, but there was no denying that a new love was born – a love for the shared microphone and the imaginary stage in one’s head. I mean, what better way is there to let off steam than to channel your inner rockstar and croon cheesy torch songs among friends, especially when the bloodstream is marinated with booze?
But mention a night of karaoke fun to your typical Spanish crowd and they’ll most probably respond with a death stare, as if you’d just suggested they rip out their own vocal cords. And so I thought my days of karaoke madness were left to the past, in the many memorable dark rooms of South East Asian cities. That was until I discovered a certain crazy crooning affair that happens once a month in Madrid – a bizarro version of karaoke that turns the tables on the tawdriness, stampedes all over the stigma of Celine Dion, and puts the Backstreet Boys on the backburner.
Instead of passing a mic in a cramped room with a small TV broadcasting erroneous lyrics, you’re onstage in full rockstar glory, donning a feather boa and pants so skinny they cut off circulation, singing Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” – and on a state of the art sound system to boot.
Welcome to the rocking, parallel universe of Anti-Karaoke. You might just quit your day job.
Described as a “fusion between a rock concert, a Broadway musical, and a crazy house party,” Anti-Karaoke could arguably be the best party night of the week. The first time I walked into El Sol, I was immediately jolted by the infectious vibe of the crowd, singing and head banging along to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” led by the brave frontman on stage, who looked like he’d just stepped out of his day job in Santander. Each powerful shout was a way of shedding his Clark Kent persona, and piling on the accessories on hand was an act of pure transformation.Ooh, and the song list! The selection runs the gamut of Rock, Pop, Heavy Metal, Punk, Soul, Rap, and ’80s New Wave. There’s Queen and The Rolling Stones and Guns N Roses and Depeche Mode and U2. I quickly scanned of the bible of tunes and I see there’s Pantera’s “Cowboys from Hell,” Motley Crüe’s “Shout at the Devil”, and The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” – um…yeah, not intimidating at all. But then again, there’s also Olivia Newton-John’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and the inimitable, all-time classic, “Ghostbusters”.
If Anti-Karaoke is a cult, then its high priestess is Rachel Arieff, the sexy Canadian comedienne who moved to Barcelona many years ago.
Part dominatrix, part Cabaret performer, and all intergalactic hostess, she hies off to Madrid on the first Wednesday of each month to set the stage for the songfest gone wild.
Rachel is a show in herself – in fact, you could spend half the night watching her confetti-throwing, Jack Daniels-pouring sideshow antics, including three (or was it four?) costume changes in one night.
Mesmerizing the crowd with crazy capers is one thing, but Rachel’s real miracle is getting the normally ridicule-averse Spanish on stage to let it all out. “I thought it would be hard to get Spanish people onstage,” Rachel shares. “I anticipated that the show would mostly attract guiris. But the Spanish people surprised me! They immediately became the stars!”
It seems everyone can be a star in Anti-Karaoke, once you grow the cojones to get up and sing. Even some of AK’s diehard regulars had waited some time before jumping from spectator to spectacle.
Stacey Taylor, also known by her AK stage name “Bombazo Platino” has been going for over two years, but it took her a year before she actually got up and sang. It’s hard to believe that she was once that reluctant newbie, especially seeing her ignite the crowd with Creedence Clearwater Revivals’ “Proud Mary” – bedecked in a shimmery silver dress and replete with backup dancers.
“The great thing about AK is that we know it’s a karaoke so the crowd is always very supportive, no matter how you sing. Everyone just lets go and doesn’t care about life’s problems for several hours on a random Wednesday night once a month.”
For Laura Fernandez, or “Empleada del Mes,” Anti-Karaoke was a cathartic way to get over a bad period in her life, right after her divorce. “At the end of that first night I was overwhelmed,” Laura shares. “Great party, great music, and a bunch of crazy people that made my day. It took a few months to have the courage to step on stage, but soon I was totally in the mood for singing Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’. When I started to sing, I suddenly forgot all fears and felt like I was home. It’s a totally inspiring experience. Since then, these crazy people are close friends, and I don’t miss a show.”
You can be whoever you want to be and no one will judge you.
One devotee with near perfect attendance is British-Spanish comedian/actor Toni Rodriguez, aka “El Inquebrantable McGinty”. He first went to AK in July 2008 and has missed only one Madrid show since. “I keep going back for a million reasons,” Toni says, “the crowd, Rachel’s energy, the fact that there you can be whoever you want to be and no one will judge you.”
But unlike most first-timers, he actually sang twice on his first visit. His advice to shy newbies? “Sing on your first night, don’t wait! Choose the rockingest song you can, and make up a funny stage name. Then, onstage, stand right on the edge of the stage and give the crowd everything you’ve got. Don’t worry about the words or how well you sing. The crowd isn’t. They just want a show. Give it to them, and you’ll be a hero for a night.”
It’s not hard to detect a sense of camaraderie among the AK disciples. Then again, letting it all hang out sans shame does have its bonding properties. As Stacey adds, “I love the friends I’ve made from going to AK. They are like a little family of crazies, just like me!”
Speaking of crazies – certainly there have been many, many madcap nights in AK’s history but there is one that stands out in Rachel’s memory – “the craziest night was when Ernesto the Naked Man, a Basque performance artist, came to AK and sang completely naked.” And um, he crowd surfed.
Entertainment, comedy, catharsis, and as Rachel maintains – Anti-Karaoke is a philosophy. “Because onstage, what makes a good performance is doing your best. Give it your all, regardless of your limitations or insecurities. Life is the same way. You can’t wait for conditions to be perfect; life is happening right NOW and it doesn’t stop for you or anyone else! If you do your best in life instead of making excuses, you will be more rewarded.”
In the words of Cake – rock on completely! Truly, everybody is a rockstar in their own right.
Longtime newspaper journalist, children’s book writer, retired fire dancer. I moved to Spain in 2008 for the wine, food, and football.