Why Do Anime Conventions Have Raves?
by Justin Sevakis,
I have been attending conventions for a wile and one thing I have never really understood was the Saturday and sometimes Friday night dance/rave that almost every convention holds now. Honestly it always felt like this was the one thing that felt the most out of place at any anime convention I have gone to, but they are almost always there. As far as I can tell, the earliest conventions back in the 1990's and possible the early 2000's did not include a dance. Maybe a masquerade ball, but that would imply more structure that what I have typically scene. How did these dances come to be as synonymous with Saturday nights at conventions? Why do almost all conventions keep holding them considering the amount of liability and headache that tends to come with them.
It's hard to tell when exactly it was that anime conventions have hosted dance parties, but they've been happening almost as long as the conventions themselves. Anime Expo lists the event as far back as 1998, which is the earliest schedule I could find on the Wayback Machine.
The fact that we even call them "raves" gives away how long this has been going on: the allure of underground dance parties was exploding in the US in the mid-90s, around the same time the VHS anime scene took off. Rave culture at the time was not a particularly mainstream thing in the US, and there was a lot of cross-over between it and the nerd world. Rave, trance, goa, gabber, happy hardcore, and most of the other popular 90s electronica genres were extremely popular among geeks, even if they weren't the type to show up at a club. Those genres were also really popular in Japan, and producers like Tetsuya Komuro merged them into mainstream J-pop.
Rave culture and anime mixed in bizarre ways in the 90s. Back then in the US, anime was a fringe entertainment medium that often meant very violent and sexy OVAs and movies, often with a noir sci-fi feel. That got it lumped in with edgy youth culture of the era. Clubs would often show anime on their screens, just to serve as slick background visuals. Just how much the two cultures co-mingled varied quite a lot depending on where you were and who you hung out with that the time. I sure don't remember seeing many rave kids at my anime club screenings in Detroit, but I'll never forget this classic Newsweek article from 1995, describing the prototypical anime fan as a 23-year-old fashionista with colored hair, sci-fi tattoos, twinkly contact lenses, Japanese clogs with plaid Bermuda shorts, and a desire to become post-human. I rolled my eyes at the time, but back then anime really was seen by some people as hip, sexy and a little bit dangerous.
Anyway, with that in mind, a dance party at an anime convention really did make a lot more logical sense when they first started. And since then, they've become a ubiquitous part of the convention experience, particularly for the young and energetic. The music has changed a bit, the lighting has gotten cooler, and the crowd has changed with the rest of the anime scene's demographics over the years, but the event is largely the same as it ever was. While a few other pop culture conventions also have raves, it's really mostly just the anime cons that have them.
As with any sort of event where it's very dim and loud and filled with younger people getting wild, sometimes bad things occur. Trashy behavior, harassment, drug use and other "incidents" pop up all the time. Most conventions are pretty strict about what goes on there: if they catch you with drugs or alcohol (or acting like you've been indulging in any of those) they'll throw you out. The con staff works very hard to make sure everyone stays safe and has a good time. They're not always successful, but they do try.
They're definitely not for everybody. They can be raucous, sweaty affairs, and if loud music and dense crowds aren't your thing, you're almost certain to have a better time in your hotel room unwrapping whatever you bought that day in the dealer's room. On more than one occasion I've found myself drawn in by the music and lights just long enough to be greeted by the 20 degree heat wave from all of the bodies in there (and, perhaps, some accompanying smells). I then get the hell out of there.
That said, some people really love the raves. For young fans who don't feel particularly comfortable or welcome at school functions, the safer confines of an anime convention allow them to cut loose in a less judgmental environment. By and large, anime fans are a welcoming bunch, and for young wallflowers these shows can be an important first step to exploring real night life. Music veers more towards J-pop, anisongs and dance music, and less on the top-40 that permeate most dances aimed at teens and young adults. In other words, it's nerdier.
Having minors involved does make the event more of a liability. About five years ago Anime Boston
made their rave 18+ cancelled their rave indefinitely after a few incidents that got the party shut down. But even a few incidents like that won't stop the party. Most conventions report that the raves are one of the most popular events at their shows. If people didn't enjoy them, they wouldn't still be a thing.
Thanks ResistNormal and Faceman in the forums for the correction on Anime Boston's rave cancellation.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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