Anime Libera: How the Weaboo Massif Built a Dance Genre

Nightcore appeared to me a few years ago, shortly after I found a YouTube video called “Ni5mo — 1 HOUR HAPPY HARDCORE MIX!!” This provoked hundreds of hours of listening to happy hardcore, Dysoning every mix I could find. Shit, before long I was mainlining ten hour mixes on the regular. One just didn’t do it for me any more.

Dance music was never a scene I claimed any stake over. Growing up where I did, dance music started at Rihanna blasted at sonic boom levels at the one bar in town and topped out at an annual pilgrimage to see Miami Horror DJ at Roxanne. dnb, hardstyle, trance, house, whatever, were all interior experiences, opaque universes glimpsed as a dilettante through late night YouTube binges — the soundtrack to IRC, not MDMA; FTP, not PCP; Google Chat, not googs.

The aesthetic of YT happy hardcore drove that down the lane: glowering, cybergothic imagery that looked more or less like the logos packaged on warez forums and pirated music videos was all over this stuff, throwing back to an even more formative interior experience on the web. Even as folks were spinning it in tangible, exterior spaces around the world, the folks upping it to YouTube were people I could sense, or at least project, shared a lineage.

So much of that shared imagery is inextricable from how dance subcultures intersected online in the early days of file-sharing and messageboards, but where it forked was anime. Anime imagery — and I’m using the term loosely ‘cos a lot is actually copped from ecchi VNs and LNs and DeviantArt fandom — is rarely a part of happy hardcore, a subgenre stretching roots back to the early 90s, but it is the imagery of nightcore.

Nightcore is explicitly a remix genre; where happy hardcore can front its own canon of original comps, nightcore is essentially, but contentiously, Sped Up Pop Songs. Inevitably, happy hardcore was co-opted by nightcore for its remixes, which is how I found it crossing over from the former.

I say contentiously ‘cos the purists, your friend and mine Wikipedia sez, regard nightcore remixes of non-dance songs as fakes. That’s as valid as not — I ain’t the genre police [via S3RL]— but scanning the most viewed list of nightcore uploads reveals teen angst is driving this thing into the future. ItaloBrothers and Cascada might lie deep in the nightcore firmament, but the kids don’t give a shit when they got The Cab at 160BPM.

At any rate, for me, the cycle was repeating. Before long I was walking the lanes of YouTube looking for the nightly reup, but this was peaking different. Nightcore was shaping up to have more in common with the A Plus Ds of the world than happy hardcore’s precedents in breakbeat and house. Nightcore jukeboxers weren’t plundering a musical lineage, they were reshaping anything that struck or resonated with them into a new fold. If anything, nightcore started to seem more an exercise like night bus, delineating by less tangible aesthetic boundaries than genre. You might wonder what a nebulous scene of NEET freaks making dance music would consider a primary inspiration. You might not guess: Mike fucking Oldfield.

The truth is somewhere in between. Nightcore did have an immediate precedent in mid-aughts Eurodance, preserved in its most enduring and some of its most satisfying reworks. The Belgians in DHT and Groove Coverage from Germany were the progenitors of beat-heavy covers of Roxette’s ‘Listen To Your Heart’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ by Mike Oldfield and Maggie Reilly. A few years after DJ Sammy had done in Bryan Adams’ ‘Heaven’ in 2002, DHT and Groove Coverage blew up the charts with dance covers of classic rock songs embedded in the English-speaking consciousness. Those covers, sped up by early nightcore bootleggers, built the foundation of the new genre. Remixes of Groove Coverage, in particular, have become staples: ‘Moonight Shadow’, their cover of Alice Cooper’s ‘Poison’, ‘21st Century Digital Girl’ — an adaptation of Bad Religion’s ‘21st Century Digital Boy — and their original ‘God Is A Girl’ (which also borrows from Roxette) are everywhere. Like the Communards’ Hi-NRG cover of Thelma Houston’s ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, these remixes nudge the original just a touch, showing up new ground folks previously thought covered. These videos have tens of millions of views.

At the start of this decade, nightcore blew wide open. Enterprising remixers figured they could bootstrap themselves to a kind of movement by speeding up whatever they wanted, meaning the histories of those European three-hit wonders now sit without context next to popular remixes of Flo Rida, Victoria Justice, Imagine Dragons and Cady Groves under the umbrella of nightcore.

Most of them are abysmal. The plasticine-thin drums of car stereo Top 40 become downright waifish when the BPM ramps up and whatever dynamics were present evaporate, dwarfed by vocoderised chipmunks, besides which they’re so cluttered at their original tempo that speeding them up overstuffs every moment. Reckon this is where the purists are coming from: the bass and kicks in the early covers had the guts to survive being stretched and flattened to become nightcore, originally produced to thump as hard as possible. The tempo’s got plenty of room to climb, and so much of the satisfaction of high BPM dance music is the drums relentlessly slugging you across the face. But thinking about nightcore as another dance subgenre in 2017 ain’t helping anybody. It’s probably more useful to think about them like interior experiences.

When I first came across “Danika”, the nightcore creator and remixer behind YouTube’s biggest nightcore channel NightcoreReality, I found hard evidence of that shared lineage I suspected. A cosplayer and anime fan, Danika started including her own vocals in remixes late last year. The first was ‘Safe’ by Britt Nicole. Most recently, it was Landon Austin’s ‘Armor’. Neither of these are dance tracks like the early nightcore cuts. They’re both saccharine pop ballads, the kinda things you’d take into your headphones, blot out the rest of the world, and sit with. In that case nightcore stops being a subgenre and starts becoming a subculture, a vector for sharing common interests.

Bas Grasmayer wrote a bit about this last year. It’s a good article, besides saying he’d never listen to Kelly Clarkson by choice before highlighting her all-time greatest single. But this isn’t, as Grasmayer says, music by and for gamers, even with those folks passing through. This is the more salient point:

The most important thing is: most of the people who listen to this music will never see these artists live. Partly because they just might not be interested in going out to a club, but also because there’s just not really a scene for it, despite these artists having online followings of hundreds of thousands or millions.

Nightcore is music by and for pop fans, emo fans, nu-metal fans, dance fans, even classic folk rock fans, seeking community beyond their respective subcultures. It once wasn’t, but it is now. This was originally going to be an attempt to define the nightcore canon, but now I think its anything-to-anyone anonymity is so much of its strength. Besides the visceral joy of listening to music fast and loud, there’s a particular kick in millions of people across the world, no stake in any club scene to speak of, getting their bass thrill from this weird phenomenon.

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