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.