Billie Eilish has cleaned up at the Grammys. An impressive achievement no doubt. In the flurry of responses to the news one stuck out to me. A tweet by YouTube mash-up artist Triple-Q pointing out that Billie had risen from producing knock-off Love Live merch to winning a Grammy. Both a critique of Eilish and ironic comment on the state of music and internet culture in 2020. One: it was a bad decision for someone as prominent Eilish to attempt to illicitly profit off another artist’s work. Two: the absurdity of the most successful musician of the moment ripping off a cutesy school idol anime from 2013.
In this way Eilish represents a single, but persistent, example of a trend brewing for almost a decade. The transition of anime from a niche subculture into part of the texture of the internet. From a specific style of artwork which was appreciated and enjoyed by a committed community: If you liked anime you were an ‘anime fan’ and that differentiated you from other people who didn’t like or engage with anime and thus were not ‘anime fans’. Into something which everyone swims through and responds to.
Here we have to differentiate, we’re not talking about the rise in popularity of anime per se through sites like Crunchyroll and YouTube. Though they’ve definitely grown in popularity over the decade. Not necessarily the stories, or even specific characters. But anime as a malleable visual style. Stylised anime avatars confront everyone across the internet, games the world over trade in anime styles, the use of anime designs on merch, albums, videos and single covers. In this context it doesn’t matter if Eilish knew that the character she was appropriating was Nozomi from Love Live. It doesn’t matter if she’s even watched the show or not. What matters to her, and to most of the rest of the internet, is that it is anime. Fresh, modern and cool.
Many of the most successful artists of the last decade, from the underground to the mainstream, have pulled anime images into their brand. Pharrell Williams’ kaleidoscope video for It Girl, Porter Robinson’s anime mini-epic Shelter, XXXTentacion’s watercolour SAUCE!, Grimes’ twisted Art Angels, Kanye West’s Stronger tribute to Akira, Lil Uzi Vert’s Futsal Shuffle. What makes the use of anime by these artists so smart is that it isn’t a barrier- it’s a boost. If you’re an anime fan you get the ego-pump of seeing a popular artist moving the medium you love forward. But if you’re not an anime fan it can equally work as a cool, eye catching visual style.
Or look to the entire genre of Future Funk. The sounds draw on 80s J-Pop, City Pop and retro music, and its images draw from their parallels in 80s and 90s anime. Looping clips of anime girls, either from legacy series like Urusei Yatsura , or their modern counterparts , are a cornerstone of the genre. What’s the purpose of these loops? To inject the kind of colour and vim which anime is so perfect at. A combination of cuteness and energy which is able to attract the eye and the ear. You don’t need to be an ‘anime’ fan to enjoy them, you just need to vibe with it.
I remember back in the 00s, when I was first getting into anime, the idea that a celebrity was even aware of anime, let alone liked it, was truly wild. I used to pour over esoteric images of Blink 182 members wearing anime shirts with amazement. Magazines used to draw up rumor lists of celebrities who liked anime: the Wachowskis , Keanu Reeves, Rivers Cuomo? Definitely dude.
In retrospect this was all symptom of the slowness of pre-internet culture. Cross-pollination took a long time. Anime was wrapped up in physical media: boxes,CDs and tapes. You had to work to even interact with it. Now the internet has unchained it to run wild and free in video and image format across almost every website possible. Now Kim Kardashian can post a picture of Two Zero on her twitter, declaring her, “my hair inspo”, and the most notable thing people have to say is that she should have credited the original artist.
So anime sits alongside Spongebob Memes, Lofi Hip Hop to study and relax to and Synthwave sunsets as part of the common language of the internet. It’s a paradox that as much as the internet thrives on weird, niche communities, it still cherishes shared images and familiar touchstones. There’s a kind of magnetic pull that as much as we all branch out into different sites and communities- we end up responding to and reproducing the same images. The doors that once separated our hobbies into neat little rooms have been blown wide open and now we’re all rolling around in the computer room posting Lum .gifs.