Anti-Karaoke in Calle 20

Anti-Karaoke en Calle 20

Rachel Arieff

“The idea of karaoke is already absurd. Karaoke shouldn’t exist. What should exist is Anti-Karaoke.”

Anti-Karaoke en Calle 20

Sidecar, the popular club in the Plaza Reial, is collapsed. Even though it’s a Monday, many waiting in line won’t ever get in. Inside, people squeeze together in the back of the club, illuminated only by the bit of light that reaches them from the stage. In the front, the audience is packed together. A Steven Tyler wannabe sings an Aerosmith song. The majority of the audience stares from their positions in the back in an attempt to see what’s happening. Something that, in the full light, promises a great deal.

The room temperature is already above normal, but it rises by quite a few degrees when Rachel Arieff appears. Comic actress and creator of Anti-Karaoke, which she herself defines as a lunatic fusion between a rock concert, an underground karaoke, and an irreverent comedy show.

“Hello!” she begins in a peculiar Spanish that’s much better than she believes. “It’s a pleasure to be back with all of you in Sidecar, a club where you don’t have to blow anyone to get onstage.”

It’s a good start for the person who, along with the public, is the most brilliant star of the evening. Rachel Arieff, is a once aspiring composer who gave it up in college because “I didn’t have the necessary talent” and for whom an eating disorder derailed her plans to become a dancer.

Fascinated by the city of Austin, she moves there, overcomes her problem and discovers a comedy club called The Velveeta Room. From there, to New York and the seductive world of marginalized alternative theaters.


A group of experiences that – along with opening the door to performing in clubs in Los Angeles – now converge onstage, where Rachel sings, acts, directs the show and presents those who volunteer to go onstage. She makes fun of everything – especially Bush, the U.S.A, and the sexual frustrations of American society.

“It’s a sick society. If you’re a woman, they hate you: if you’re attractive, if you’re ugly, if you’re fat, if you’re thin… I think this hatred is caused by frustration.”


The million-dollar question is, how is something like Anti-Karaoke conceived? A concept that sees the light when Rachel begins to miss having fun at karaoke clubs, which she found here to be “stiff and boring”, and not at all like in the U.S., where actors and singers go to have fun. “I have always believed that, if something’s missing from your life, you have to create it. When I started Anti-Karaoke, I had no money buy the proper equipment so I thought: I’ll do a D.I.Y. version and print the lyrics from the Internet. We wanted it to be irreverent, fun, and participatory. The idea of karaoke is already a ridiculous concept. Karaoke shouldn’t exist. Therefore what should exist is Anti-Karaoke!”


Dressed in a top and short skirt, as sexy as they are tacky, the mistress of this ceremony – who besides in Sidecar, puts on an Anti-Karaoke once a month in Madrid – pours Jack Daniel’s into the eager mouths of audience members competing for the same stream. Watching her pour the golden liquid with great pleasure, one looks for references and finds none, although Rachel loves Tom Waits because he’s a musician and comic storyteller: “In the U.S. I’d go to clubs and get inspiration from my colleagues all the time. Here I depend on the Internet, the newspaper, or conversations with my neighbors for inspiration because there’s no comedy scene.”

Besides these materials, Rachel uses ingredients from her daily life. “I don’t have the habit of sitting down at a desk and writing.” So, notebook and pen in hand, she wanders the streets until she happens upon something funny and jots it down, even though she may end up writing on her hand.  Sometimes day of her show at the Llantiol arrives  (a comedy show she does at this Barcelona theater the last Thursday of every month) and she has no idea what she will do until the last minute. Something that doesn’t seem to worry this anti-diva, who knows that life will always have surprises for those who keep their eyes open.

But her registers aren’t confined to Anna Nicole Smith transformed into Louis Armstrong (WTF??): her other favorite characters include Britney Spears, Madonna, Sinead O’Connor, or the drag king Butch Martini, whose gender isn’t always clear to the public but who is always warmly received.

To Rachel, being content isn’t boring: “There are a lot of bored young people who haven’t suffered much. The more you live, the more you realize that normality is a good thing. It’s nice. But at the same time it doesn’t really exist, because everything always gets fucked up in the end.”


One who also appears to enjoy the good things in life right now is an anonymous participant who, after being presented by Rachel, karaokes “Don’t Cry” by Guns N’Roses from a minimalist stage that, in the background, houses a table with objects as diverse as wigs, costumes, bras, an inflatable guitar, et cetera. The crowd, as if in a long-awaited concert, sings along, jumps up and down, points fingers in the air, and generally has a blast. It’s an audience that, Rachel explains, often returns to the show; among them figure personalities such as Dani El Mutante, who faithfully shows up every Monday.

The secret, according to this lively and psychedelic show-woman, is that things have a life of their own. It’s something that has to do with her own tastes, which lead her to appreciate comedians who talk about their personal truth, which give them a soulful quality. A quality which, in this case, also extends to Anti-Karaoke: “It has soul. We value the personality of the people who come here. We try to be wam and generous, to connect, although there’s not always enough time for everyone who shows up to get to sing.” The secret – in this case, an open one — is to transmit something personal in one’s performance that, in her own words, makes it “hard for them to hate you.”


Neverthelesss, the beginnings of this new genre, which has taken the mike from stars such as Luis Aguilé, Nino Bravo, and Roberto Carlos, and passed it to Alanis Morissette, Weezer, The Ramones, Prince, Motley Crüe, Neneh Cherry, New Order, Beatles, were not that bright. “We explained what we wanted to do to the club owner and he said: I don’t understand anything you’re talking about, but go ahead and try it.” But what began as a party among friends, after two years and an effective word-of-mouth campaign, now, on a May Monday like today, boasts more than 200 people lining up at the door of the club.

One incident that Rachel feels proud of is having shared a taxi with Carmen de Mairena, the frankfurter-lipped actress and freaky T.V. personality famous for her media appearances. Tonight Mairena hasn’t appeared but, all things considered and as welcome as she would have been, it would be hard for the temperature to be any hotter than it is tonight at Sidecar.

Anti-Karaoke en Calle 20

By Luis Fernández Saurin        Photos: Guillermo Barbera