It's not even midnight and the concrete walls are already quaking. I'm at the Flat, a chandeliered bar in Williamsburg that doubles as a bite-sized club most nights of the week. Squeaks of pitched-up cartoon voices and hyper-pop slice through the air. The projector is beaming an art film starring Sonic the Hedgehog. A girl with a bushy blue tail slides past me, slinking towards the dance floor. Yes, I am at a cosplay rave. Weirdly, I seem to be the only Asian in the room.
The lineup tonight features card-carrying members of the Internet underground, including Trilogy, Legion, Ducky, Machine Girl, and the wonderfully/terribly named Hello Kitty Sippy Cup. Shortly after I arrive, the Atlanta-based artist No Eyes lights a cigar while he caps off a live set full of punishing breakbeats and gloomy synths with… YG's "My Nigga," because why the hell not.
Next up is Maxo, who is fittingly wearing a matching Pikachu shirt and hat. His selections are squarely in line with the kind of J-pop-inspired, computer game-derived sounds that the electronic music world has been favoring of late. It's no surprise that he pulls heavily from the repertoire of PC Music—the British label that has been attracting plenty of buzz for its glossy hyper-pop. After all, he recently collaborated on the unhinged "Not That Bad" with PC Music affiliate GFOTY.
Otaku culture in America is more widespread than ever. Although the lifestyle originated in Japan (obviously), it's been inspiring new generations of cross-border obsessives ever since the Japanese pop culture surge of the 90s. Recently, Japanese culture fandom and its telltale signs like cosplay—the practice of dressing like characters from Japanese video games, books and movies—have spilled over from the usual otaku hangouts of manga conventions, Kinokuniya, and maid cafes into the dark and druggie spaces of Brooklyn bars and warehouses. Tonight is the perfect example of this new, and increasingly popular breed of partygoer: the nu-kawaii raver.
Nu-kawaii is equally inspired by Japanese culture and Internet culture. It takes kawaii aesthetics one step further by incorporating street wear and art world themes. Unlike traditional gatherings of otakus like Comic Con, where denizens show up in homemade gothic Lolita costumes, nu-kawaii parties feature sad boys in Mishka jerseys with smiling anime girls, club kids wearing semi-ironic "PLUR" logos, and hood rats in snapbacks festooned with Hello Kitty stickers. Their music—a cultural mashup of jungle, J-core, trap, and trance, with catchy anime theme songs thrown in for good measure—is a reflection of their omnivorous tastes. Scene ambassadors, like Sophie, A.G. Cook and Hannah Diamond, talk about the influence of advertising in their music, and often straddle the line between performance art.
Of course, the West's unbridled love for Japanese pop culture is nothing new. But what's most exciting about nu-kawaii is that it is living proof that "cultural appropriation"—a term that has become tainted in the music world by the likes of Katy Perry and co—doesn't have to be straight-up theft. That it can be fluid, and even used a creative force. That ideas borrowed from across oceans can warp into mutant manifestations of their former selves. That even cliches, chopped up through the Internet meat grinder, can emerge as something cool.
*An earlier version of this article erroneously named Machine Girl as the same artist as Hello Kitty Sippy Cup. We regret the error.
Michelle Lhooq's kawaii peace sign game is very on point - @MichelleLhooq