At a Shrek rave in New York City, a meme comes to life

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lord farquaad hiding behind curtains

If Mark Zuckerberg is fighting to move the offline world online into the metaverse, Ka5sh is one of the many forces battling to do the exact opposite: to bring a meme to life.

"Shrek, along with SpongeBob, are huge pillars to the meme community," Ka5sh told Mashable. "It just seemed like the next logical step for me as a meme maker was to create a world where you can experience the meme in real life."

This is My Swamp Flag in crowd
Get out of my swamp! Credit: Samuel Harris

As Meta digs its utilitarian claws into the last vestiges of its cool factor, the folks who attended the Shrek rave on a Friday night in New York City’s East Village rejoice in the notion that "cool is dead." Ka5sh, who organized the rave, says he's trying to "destroy" the idea of coolness, which seems like a difficult thing to do when your event has sold out in half a dozen locations across the country.

"There's no point in trying to impress people and trying to maintain this facade of perfectness, because you're not, and it's just destroying your brain," he said. At the Shrek rave, "no one is trying to impress each other."

The first people in line outside of Webster Hall arrived around 10 p.m., an hour before doors opened and an hour and a half before the rave was slated to start. 

Shrek Raver sitting outside in costume
Not the gumdrop buttons Credit: Samuel Harris
Shrek Rave Sold out Marquee
Hallelujah Credit: Samuel Harris

"If you're saying 'cool is dead,' then you're opening up for freedom at that point," Rodolfo, who was first in line and chose to only give his first name, told Mashable. He was wearing a Shrek shirt and Shrek ears, along with four friends, two of whom were in head-to-toe Donkey outfits. "Expressing yourself, not following the mainstream, not following any kind of trends or anything."

After the group of five entered the venue, they filed into the ballroom and danced to the music of the Shrek soundtrack — an album that peaked at no. 28 on the Billboard 200 in 2001, featuring songs like "I'm a Believer" performed by Smash Mouth and "I'm on My Way" from The Proclaimers. A testament to its mainstream appeal at the time, the project was nominated for a Grammy Award. The film itself won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars.

Group of Ravers dancing
Oscar-worthy Credit: Samuel Harris

Inside Webster Hall, the DJs put their own spin on the familiar hits. There’s a scene in the first Shrek movie in which Lord Farquaad, a man who’s many failures include his short stature, is encouraging his knights to save Princess Fiona from the tallest tower in a castle surrounded by lava and guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. It’s a key part of the film, when he says "some of you may die but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make," a line that has become a meme in its own right

At the Shrek rave, that signature line blasts over the speakers when the first beat of the rave drops. Everyone — dressed as characters from the film like Lord Farquaad, the three blind mice, Shrek, Pinocchio, the dragon, and the Fairy Godmother — dips their hips to the ground, raising their drinks into the air and cheering. Later on in the rave, HelloGoodbye — the artist behind "Here (In Your Arms)" — takes a turn at the DJ table. A drag queen dressed up as the Fairy Godmother leads the crowd in a "fuck bitches, get money" chant before pulling her dress down and flashing her chest.

Fairy Godmother from Shrek Movie on Stage
I need a hero. Credit: Samuel Harris
Crowd at shrek rave in costume
We got lower. Credit: Samuel Harris
crowd of shrek rave in costume and dancing
Where's Waldo Credit: Samuel Harris
Two Shrek ravers embracing eachother
True luv Credit: Samuel Harris

The same kind of wild, at times confusing, and uninhibited joy you see at the Shrek rave is mirrored on subreddits and Instagram accounts dedicated to the film. The rave is described to me more than once as "a meme come to life." But this truly feels like a shitpost became a sentient aura and dripped itself across a crowded dance floor.

The rave isn't alone in attempting to bring Shrek fans together in real life. Every year, since 2014, ShrekFest hits Milwaukee, a free all-ages event with live music, games, a costume contest, a roar-off, an onion-eating competition, and a screening of the flick that inspired it all. 

It might seem odd that Shrek has maintained its cultural relevance two decades after its release and found its way as a mainstay on meme pages despite coming out far before memes existed. But Shrek’s relevance transcends the internet. 

Person in donkey mask
Donkey Credit: Samuel Harris

The film is one of the only animated movies to be preserved by the Library of Congress. It was released at a precarious time in American history, primed to be a success and an irrevocable part of our cultural consciousness. The resurgence of Disney’s animation department with films like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin inspired a wave of tired children's movies that relied on boring tropes of princesses needing something more. As Collider reported, moviegoers were ready for a film that was its opposite: Shrek. It's a movie about an Ogre no one likes who wants to stay home, which is in stark contrast to a beautiful princess who seeks adventure.

person in donkey hat flexing
Strong Shrek Credit: Samuel Harris
person in shrek ears and tie dye shirt
Green Shrek Credit: Samuel Harris

Politically, the movie was released in April 22, 2001, just five months before the September 11 terrorist attacks reshaped American life and less than a year after George W. Bush narrowly won the presidency via a Supreme Court case. Many people could relate to Shrek as a Marxist film or a libertarian film or simply anti-authoritarian. But, in the end, Shrek was escapism; and it represented the last bits of unfiltered childhood millennials remembered before war became a mainstay of American debate. Shrek was released before Myspace and YouTube and Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and COVID-19, all of which have threatened to take even more youthful joy away. It's no wonder we're leaning into Shrek once more, and the next generation is now embracing its whimsy.

person in rave crowd wearing shrek hat
Black and white Shrek Credit: Samuel Harris
person in costume dancing
Fairytale creatures Credit: Samuel Harris

"It's something from your childhood when things were really good, still really funny, still holds up to this day and it's one of the last pieces of media that we all really loved," Ka5sh said.

Ka5sh is alluding to something important: The entire concept of media has changed drastically since 2001 and, along with it, so has many young people's access to innocence. The year Shrek was released, Wikipedia was first launched and Mark Zuckerberg hadn't yet graduated from high school. The full scope of social media was instant messaging on AIM and a couple of blogs. We've seen how the insurgence of new platforms affects young users: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen's leaks, known as the Facebook Papers, showed that "Instagram is harmful to a sizable percentage of [teens], most notably teenage girls." The CDC noted the rate of suicide among people aged 10 to 24 increased by 56 percent from 2007 to 2017, making suicide the second leading cause of death for young people, following accidents. Some experts attribute part of the rise to social media. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly twice as many teens said they used the internet "almost constantly" in 2018 than in 2014.

person in crowd of
It is exhausting Credit: Samuel Harris

And now, it appears we're moving even further into the online world. Earlier this year Facebook became Meta, heralding in a new era of interconnectivity. Zuckerberg says he has plans to build a maximalist set of experiences that are all connected online in a world called the metaverse. The metaverse doesn't yet make any sense, but there is a stark paradoxical dissonance in viewing how tech companies are pulling people further into the depths of online life as meme account moderators are fighting to hold onto their childhood through IRL experiences. And the Shrek rave was a blast, but even its attendees couldn't resist posting on Instagram about it. 

waffle boxes on floor of stage
And in the morning... Credit: Samuel Harris
Shrek necklace laying on chest
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Credit: Samuel Harris

Perhaps we'll find a way to bring our childhood into the metaverse. Perhaps the metaverse will learn all of the lessons taught in the last two decades by the failure to keep young people safe online. But, in all likelihood, it won't. We'll have to work harder than ever to find our luxuries and ease offline in things like staying up late, swapping manly stories, and in the morning, making some waffles.

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