There’s a petite silver-blonde girl with pigtails and a light blue bleed dye prancing around on the stage of a refurbished warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, and the crowd is loving it. She’s performing what can only be described as some kind of future bass gangsta rap, while dressed like a Harajuku cowgirl in a white fringed jacket, tassels down to her feet. Waving around a cute Uzi covered in stickers, she spits lines about drugs, guns and ‘bitches’ in a breathy, high-pitched vocal to a bodily low end and a looping, mid-range synth sweep: “I don’t go just any place,/ I go where money is located.”
Belis is playing a party called Heav3n. It’s an 18+ event in a 21+ world organised by Lulo – a model, actor and Instagram influencer made internet famous for featuring in the posthumous release of emo rapper Lil Peep’s ‘Spotlight’ collaboration with Marshmello. Heav3n’s location sometimes changes, it’s happened at The Lash, Los Globos, The Continental Club and other more clandestine places in the over three years since its inception.
The week before this show is my first. An Instagram DM from a younger, more connected friend who moonlights on the door leads me to a handle called @shopheav3n. It’s a curated online store featuring fashion that caters to the queer, non-binary community the party has helped promote. The event branding consists heavy metal font surrounded by CGI chains, barbed wire and a 3D manga avatar. The social photos are a carnival of different rave looks: sad girl angels, dark cabaret dolls, evil clown drag. Heave3n’s Instagram grid resembles a late-20th century conception of a dystopian future club taken straight from the movies. Think Bladerunner or The Fifth Element, along with the mid-90s whimsy of what a hacker might look like. Said conception translates pretty accurately to real space, as well. Surgical masks, fishnets, boob tubes and the whole rainbow of hair colours abound, while a monumental projection of the Heav3n logo animates overhead.
One of these nights, “Dragula” Abhora prowls the stage and wades through the crowd on stilts between sets by freaky neoperreo headliner Tomasa Del Real and, weirdly, Courtney Stodden. The latter Los Angeles media personality – best known for marrying a 51-year-old actor at 16 – is singing a rendition of her single ‘Daddy Issues’. Self-styled “queer pop star” Dorian Electra is behind her in their signature blocky mullet and drawn-on pencil moustache, dancing and waving around Stodden merch, while wearing a flowing pirate blouse. Mood Killer is there too, having just finished a manic set of synthetic Auto-Tune undulations and iPhone message tone sampling in ‘Camboy’, dressed in one ghostly white contact lens, PVC harness and a strap on.
Camera’s are ever-present at Heav3n, whether its the official @shopheav3n photo booth inside, the unashamed selfie shoots outside, or the floating glow of phone screens held high during a given performance. A closing DJ set by Dorian Electra is most representative of the environmental ADD of the digital native in the Internet Era. Tracks slide through cuts of Italian eurodance group Eiffel 65’s ‘Blue (Da Ba Dee)’, Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ and Scatman John’s ‘Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)’ for no more than 30 seconds at a time, without pause. Each play becomes a gesture, an aural thumbnail image of a song from a time that will from here on be known only by its footnote – a YouTube hyperlink sent in an iMessage thread that’s acknowledged but never opened by its recipient.
Dorian Electra’s hyperactive pop appetite is rivaled only by Toopoor on another night. Her set opens with a hectic speed edit of Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated’, followed by a mostly heavy rock sequence. There’s a track by Nickelback, Alien Ant Farm’s cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ and Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. A mosh pit forms for said 1991 grunge/pop crossover hit, instigated by cute girls with tiny backpacks bumping up against buff dudes without shirts and disaffected loners in hooded sweaters, all while dexterously texting. The throng gets frantic. Someone’s smartphone gets trampled.
Regular Heav3n DJs – one wearing a puppy play bondage mask – warm up the crowd with Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’ next to Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’, Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’, coucou chloe’s ‘Gecko’ and Sophie’s ‘Lemonade’. The latter Los Angeles-based producer’s position as one of the pioneers of this post-PC Music safe space for young weirdos existing along the margins of the curly pop continuum isn’t lost on anyone. A last-minute announcement sees Heav3n packed to the brim on another Sunday night as a compere declares that Sophie “basically invented music”. To the gleefully far-reaching yet myopic Gen Z audience present, that certainly rings true. As a by now Grammy-nominated artist in her own right, Sophie turns up smoking and in a hooded Autechre sweatshirt, to deliver a decidedly more ambient set than expected. The pulsating crowd still loves it, as she teases them by touching on the brutal pitch oscillating synths of tracks like ‘Faceshopping’ before BC Kingdom joins as MC.
Heav3n’s collapsing of arbitrary divisions between ‘pop’ and ‘experimental’, visual and sonic worlds in this new augmented reality might certainly be seen by serious (see, ‘older’) heads as an affront to what constitutes originality. As theorist Alex Williams states, quoting Mark Fisher on the ‘Death of Rave’: “where once popular electronic dance music was able to conjure entire new genres, as well as generating entirely unheard sonic effects… along with new forms of collective experience to match, now it appeared to be shuffling together a pre-existing deck of possibilities.” This notion of novelty, though, is limited to the culture it propagates, which in the case of Heav3n, consists an endless series of super-complex musical and ‘other’ forms loaded with emotional and historical information. In their infinite mutations, various styles and aesthetic signifiers have been decontextualized and recontextualised to such a degree that they each represent the endless possibilities of a new queer subjectivity in this quintessentially 21st century remix culture.**