The It girl epitomizes the very moment, but she’s rarely on time. In a downtown Los Angeles warehouse, the Kawaii Twerk Rave is filling with bodies, but internet club kid Itzel Xoco, whom I am here to meet, is nowhere to be found through the blunt smoke and laser lights. Young women near the stage grind and twerk. Tonight’s lineup of DJs and rappers are all women, and the floor percolates with a feeling of female camaraderie. The environment has one schoolgirl-skirted partygoer so immersed as she dances, mini backpack tipped to the ceiling, that she doesn’t notice the man with a video camera zooming in on a patch of her underwear, which glows under the black light.
When Itzel finally appears it is the following day, and she brings a bottle of champagne. “The entire world was so turnt up last night,” she offers by way of apology. Itzel pours champagne into a Solo cup as she walks down Santa Monica Boulevard, going over the previous evening the way you do when a night is so good there’s nothing to do the next day but talk about it. There was an art event that her friend deejayed, which led to a suite at the Standard and a private afterparty where everyone got naked in the Jacuzzi. It’s another story for Itzel’s collection—a good one, which seems to please her.
More important, there are photos ready to garner “likes” online. At 21, Itzel doesn’t remember life without the internet or the internet without her life splashed across it. She had plush, internet-enabled Neopets as a kid, Myspace in middle school, Facebook in high school and now Instagram, where she publishes her artwork—glossy collages of corporate logos, internet symbols and Sims girls customized with wi-fi tattoos. They are viewed by thousands of followers who are all part of this new rave scene, either in real life or merely virtually. The pieces are part diary, part personal philosophy, complete with digitized avatars as stand-ins for Itzel. “Soon we will all be avatars,” she explains. “People are already becoming less human, the internet is so much a part of us. Even the little meals we make we upload to Instagram.”
There are no brunch photos on Itzel’s Instagram feed, but there are plenty of selfies and nude body shots—as Itzel points out, it’s hard not to feel controlled by the “likes,” which inevitably affect what gets posted. “If you post body shots, you get ‘likes,’” she says. “It’s all about the ‘likes.’ Being a millennial, sometimes it feels as though you keep staying alive just for that affirmation.”
Accordingly, in the dressing room at an American Apparel store, Itzel has determined that if photos are to be taken for possible use in this story, then she will have the “sluttiest” shots of everyone. “I want to be perfect online,” she says. “I want to look like my avatars. We are not all avatars yet, but it sometimes seems as though we don’t have personalities anymore, just brands. We’re turning ourselves into products we can sell. We’re no longer the consumers but the products.” Later, she’ll dip into a pool, bikini-clad, champagne in hand, photo-ready. It’s an image she will put on Instagram for her followers to envy and, more important, “like.”
The scene in Los Angeles at the Kawaii Twerk Rave, one of a growing number of underground raves.
When the U.S. first imported rave culture from the U.K. in the pre-internet days of the early 1990s, attending a rave meant finding a flyer in the street, picking up tickets at a record store, calling a number to get an address and hoping the whole thing wasn’t shut down by the authorities before you got there. Over the next 20 years, rave became EDM, ecstasy became molly and Wall Street took over. DIY raves were replaced by mega-festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival and Electric Zoo, which packaged the look and the music with an overdose of spring-break culture and made millions. Attendance at the five largest EDM festivals grew 41 percent between 2007 and 2012, and festival producer SFX Entertainment recently received a $1.1 billion valuation on Wall Street.
The new generation of club kids were not among those buying in. The bigger EDM grew in the mainstream, the deeper the DIY rave scene buried itself underground. Even finding an event in the new rave scene is a task: You must know whom to follow on social media and when to find a flyer on Instagram or receive one via a direct message on Twitter. In Los Angeles, events with names like Fade to Mind and Body High unfold in dank downtown buildings where kids dressed like Tumblr GIFs vibrate on uppers; in New York, parties such as Club Shade and Ghe20G0th1k start after midnight in Brooklyn warehouses where bass shakes the decrepit walls and windows. Electric Daisy Carnival this is not.
In Brooklyn, Jubilee and Star Eyes, two veteran female DJs, discuss this rave revival over sake. Although the scene may be off the radar for now, each weekend the parties fill with more and more Manhattanites, bankers and bank managers. The internet, it seems, is a powerful tool for bringing people together, but it isn’t selective about who they are.
“The internet brings access. Even if you can’t find the address for a party, you can still read about it on a blog,” explains Star Eyes. “We aren’t trying so hard to be counterculture anymore.” Besides, she says, it’s inevitable that sooner or later the scene’s best DJs “get booked at Lollapalooza, where you see frat boys and finance dudes taking ecstasy and hugging it out.”
Jubilee nods. “There are still levels of underground,” she explains.
There are, in fact, countless levels of underground, all of them fueled by the shifting aesthetics of the new rave world’s fickle internet microgenres—kawaii grunge, seapunk, soft ghetto, ghetto gothic, sad acid, lolita grunge, tropical, soft grunge, pagan grunge, pastel goth, nu witch, icepunk. This, Jubilee and Star Eyes lament, is possibly why the new generation of club kids seem less engaged: When parties cater to online life, they can end up being more about the image of having gone to a rave than about actually going to one. Club kids invite Facebook friends, come to take a few photos, stare at their phones and leave.
“What’s cool about the internet club kids and the It girls on Tumblr is that they are almost like the graffiti on commercial billboards. They are commodifying themselves before they can be commodified,” says Star Eyes. “The original club kids were doing that too, but now there are more tools. But that can be a prison where you become controlled by the ‘likes’ and comments, where you are defined by your own consumption.”
Those “likes” don’t come just from other members of the scene but from thousands of voyeurs who want a peek into the daily life of modern club kids. “The internet opened the door for the rest of the world to have an appreciation for club kids,” says Ladyfag, a promoter and nightlife personality who throws Shade in New York. “People who might not actually go clubbing can discover these amazing creatures and follow their art form on the web.”
While the web gives club kids a platform to exist outside the party, it also blurs the line between the person and the persona. The Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan hosted the FUN Conference to explore nightlife as social-practice art, a form of performance art that uses social engagement as a medium. “People talk about their art practices, but in nightlife you live your practice,” explains Ladyfag, who spoke at the conference. “Nightlife is an art show, and everyone plays a part. The energy is full of living art pieces, though it’s tossed aside as hedonism and highly undervalued.” The museum even finances a yearly grant for “nightlife artists,” providing unrestricted funds for projects to unfold, whether in a gallery or in the nightlife space. It’s an official recognition of the club kid as a valid form of artistic practice.
In Los Angeles, Chanel Castaneda, sprightly model and club kid, is getting ready for a night out with the guys behind Fade to Mind, an electronic-music label whose warehouse parties loom large. In her apartment, she and fellow pastel-haired It girl Sina pose for photos. They decide that Itzel will not have the sluttiest photos in this story—not if Chanel can help it. After a series of outfit changes, she decides on a mini white skort, white Nike top and matching white Nike visor with long pink extensions tucked beneath, a sleek signature look she describes as “cyber-cholita-princess.” If the club kid is indeed a valid form of art, then Chanel’s medium of choice is Instagram, where she posts a steady stream of selfies to her 10,000 followers.
“I just want people to be real on Instagram and the internet, which is hard, because the internet is like this fantasy space,” she says, white iPhone in hand. “Some people pretend to live this luxurious life, and when you go to their house, they live in a trailer. It can become so fabricated and manipulated. I mean, there is beauty in being real. There is beauty in barely surviving but making your outfit work.”
With a background in art, modeling and musical theater, Chanel sees being a creative person as a lifestyle; when you’re an artist, everything you do becomes art. “It’s about how you view everything, and so everything you make is going to be art,” she says. “I feel every selfie is art, in a way. There are two types of people: people who are artists and people who aren’t.”
In a cab on the way to the club, Chanel talks about her recent Instagram trauma: She lost her account when an ex-boyfriend hacked and deleted her page. “It felt like losing my diary,” she says. “I mean, I used to just go and look at my page anytime I was bored and remember, like, Oh, that night was fun.”
“So are you guys headed to a party tonight?” the driver asks from the front seat. No one looks up from the glow of their phones.
At the club, Chanel and her posse are ushered past a velvet rope and up a spiral staircase to an empty VIP section overlooking the dance floor. They perch on huge sofas, slightly bobbing to TeeFlii’s “This D”—“She want this dick,/She gon’ get this dick,/Yea, I give her this dick.” The club is loud, but the conversation about Instagram continues. “I just feel if you take yourself too seriously, you end up looking like a fool,” Chanel offers, her voice high-pitched over the music.
More than 10,000 people follow club kid Chanel Castaneda’s Instagram feed.
“There was this interesting article on Jezebel about how selfies are bad for women,” Ms. Fitz, a party promoter and artist, says in a Brooklyn loft filled with women getting ready for a party. A collective groan rises from the group. “I know, but it made all these interesting points about feminism and how our body image and self-esteem are linked to selfies,” she continues.
“But selfies get the most ‘likes,’” says Angelina Dreem, an artist and musician.
“That’s so true,” says Molly Soda, a Tumblr It girl and internet artist who uses the selfie as her primary medium. There is double-chin Molly, pet-rat-kissing Molly, naked-on-the-toilet Molly. “No one ‘likes’ my other pictures,” she laments.
Molly is a rising star in the digital art world. She was named one of Complex magazine’s most important artists of 2013 after making blogosphere headlines for being one of the first to sell a digital piece at an art auction: a video of her reading her entire Tumblr in-box, a feat of endurance that took more than eight hours. She’s enough of an art celebrity that when a stranger found a box of her discarded photographs in a Chicago Dumpster and presented them, without her consent, in a small gallery as found art, the internet identified the images almost immediately. (In a strange twist, the man curating the exhibition of “found, anonymous” images later copped to knowing they were Molly’s.)
“You were flown here tonight for this, right?” asks Genevieve Belleveau, an internet performance artist.
Molly nods. She lives in Detroit and was, in fact, flown out to deejay tonight’s party, her first set ever. “That’s the attention currency,” Genevieve says. “It’s as if your real-life presence doesn’t hold as much clout as your online one. The online ‘likes’ are almost an economic system.”
The discussion moves to how the nightclub was once a space where artists had to go to meet, to the point that mega art stars became completely associated with clubs: Andy Warhol at Studio 54, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Mudd Club, Ryan McGinley and Dash Snow at Max Fish. Someone asks how Molly and Genevieve met, and soon everyone realizes they met online even though they go to the same parties. “I feel like the internet is a club,” Genevieve says. “It’s...da club.”
The women walk in a pack to the club. “How are we going to monetize this is the biggest question,” says Ms. Fitz, who is wearing an American flag swimsuit beneath her coat. “We do all this work online, but how do you take it into real life? Is real life where we meet the glass ceiling?”
“I’ve been struggling with that for so long. Everything I do is free,” says Molly.
“There is this thing of our work on the internet being free labor, and especially free labor by females,” says Genevieve, passing a bottle of vodka as she walks. “We’re creating our own pornographic avatars for free.”
The event is a birthday party for net artist Amanda Schmidt, who is known mostly for a project for which she wore only new, mall-purchased Abercrombie & Fitch clothing for an entire year. The space is a Latin nightclub in Bushwick, two pitch-black stories with spinning lasers, bass and artificial fog. The girls dance and drink vodka from the smuggled bottle as the conversation returns to the selfie debate.
“There is this idea that the artist and the art should remain separate,” Genevieve says, “but the artist and the art have always been entwined. Think of Dalí.”
“That’s such a bro’s view, that they should be separate,” Ms. Fitz says. “I like to think that what we do is challenge the idea of female beauty and needing male attention. There’s always a subversive twist, like me wearing full makeup and drawn-on facial hair, or Molly being a cute girl with armpit hair.”
Molly, who just uploaded a nude photo of herself with chicken nuggets covering her nipples, cackles.
“I’ve always been interested in the idea that individuals exist with the awareness of someone watching them,” says Genevieve. “It’s almost a religious idea, and the internet has now manifested it.”
Tonight in Los Angeles, Fate Morgana, a self-proclaimed art hacker, is going to a party thrown by people who hate her. She received a Twitter direct-message screenshot of the invite (in Echo Park, RSVPs listed) as a warning. Entering the party alone, in false lashes and an oversize sports jersey, Fate waves to someone who has publicly denigrated her online. The girl looks back at Fate, horrified, before turning away. “Everyone hates everyone, and whenever anyone enters a party, they talk about how lame it is,” Fate says with a sigh.
Fate jokes that she can intellectualize anything as performance art, and this is one manifestation: a manipulation of social practices and expectations that she considers “social hacking,” defined as making it a goal to gain admittance into a group or subculture by camouflaging yourself in that group’s tropes. With the right appearance, anyone can be an artist or internet-famous club kid.
This is what prompted Fate to relocate to Los Angeles from Las Vegas. “I can do something with this. This is like clay to me,” she says, waving a hand. “People here need help intellectualizing their hedonism.” Years earlier, Fate made a name for herself in New York City as a teenage fashion blogger and muse to indie bands, under the pseudonym Bebe Zeva. She inspired the eccentric novelist Tao Lin to make a documentary about her, which in turn prompted The New York Times to publish a profile on Fate’s overwhelming It-ness. Now she plans to wean herself from fashion associations and perform Fate Morgana full-time.
“We are artists without art,” Fate says, laughing, and references net artist Brad Troemel’s observation that we look at each other’s Facebook pages more than we do each other’s art. “We have killed the object; now there is only subject.”
Rave scene It girl Itzel Xoco relaxes after an epic night out in L.A.
From a private balcony she gestures to the people on the dance floor, who watch themselves on camera. This is Boiler Room, an event with a live video component: Party-goers are projected onto a large screen above the crowd and simultaneously on the internet, where global audiences watch.
“Everyone here is existing to be looked at, which is what art does,” says Fate. The crowd on the dance floor, clad in Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, moves limply. This aesthetic, looking “alternative” while dressed in sportswear, may read as standard hipster irony—what’s been termed normcore, or dressing like a normal—but in the balcony there’s discussion about whether the look is a political reaction to an eroding middle class, maybe a response to Occupy Wall Street and the failures of that movement’s DIY ethos. “Sportswear represents leisure time. I think there’s something very aspirational about it,” says Fate. Of course, the slick new aesthetic also brought new drugs. “Everyone is on meth,” she says. “Well, people are.” She takes a drag from a pink vaporizer pen, a stealth cannabis pipe she’s named Tiffany. “I tried it a few weeks ago. I have no complaints.”
When Fate met Itzel for the first time—in real life—they both screamed, then began grinding and twerking on the dance floor until Chanel slipped behind Itzel to hiss, “Don’t dance with her!” All the internet It girls know one another, and everyone follows everyone, even if it’s out of spite. “It’s all about how other people see you,” says Fate. “We’re all trying to maintain how relevant we appear and not how relevant we really are.”
Fate talks around the drama when Chanel is brought up, turning the discussion to the “art of existence.” What elevates a personality to an art form? Is Chanel—whose Instagram page is a stream of selfies—also an artist? “Maybe girls like Chanel think they’re inspiring young women by loving themselves, but I feel that kind of relentless self-love is narcissistic,” says Fate. “It reminds me of Stockholm syndrome, how affectionate we are about being owned by Twitter and Facebook.”
Fate ultimately decides not to go behind the camera at Boiler Room, rationalizing that this is probably because she is with a group of men, and straight men seem to have less need for that kind of instant affirmation. “In order to exist at that party,” she says, “you have to go behind the camera, but when you’re behind it, you can’t see yourself. All you see is a camera, but you know you’re being watched.”
The effect is, in essence, a feedback loop: a rave full of people posting photos to the social media feeds of their club-kid personas while an audience at home watches a video feed or refreshes an Instagram feed of the event. Everyone is taking part, even if their participation means uploading content to the web for someone somewhere to consume, “like” and validate.
Fate calls me weeks later. “There was something interesting last night,” she says. The night before, Fate, feeling a little down, left a warehouse party early and was struck to see a “prominent member” of the scene also leaving early. “I asked him why, and he was like, ‘I’m already logged on to the internet. Why would I need to be here?’”