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Are We on the Precipice of a Vibe Shift?

by Emma Kang

Staff Writer

art by Dan Ha Le

[originally published March 11, 2022]


Allison Davis wrote an article published in The Cut titled “A Vibe Shift Is Coming. Will Any Of Us Survive It?” This article was based on a Substack entry by “trend forecaster” Sean Monahan where he discusses the upcoming “vibe shift.” They bring up the past three vibes that they’ve lived through, which were “Hipster/Indie Music (2003-09), Post Internet/Techno Revival (2010-16), and Hypebeast/Woke (2016-20).” Whether or not I think these are entirely right, these are consequently three eras of fashion and culture that I somewhat remember because it was around 2010 that I started actually using the internet and paying attention to Seventeen magazine.

What is a vibe shift? Davis writes that “In the culture, sometimes things change, and a once-dominant social wavelength starts to feel dated.” Davis argues that the two years of the pandemic put a soft pause on pop culture and its impact on how people lived their lives. Calling the culture shift “unnerving” and vocally worrying about her “survival odds,” she says that she felt like she spent the last few good years of her life in her apartment in “cute lounge pants” on her couch “gobbling antidepressants.”

“There’s been a real paranoia that people have. Everyone coming out of hibernation being like, What are people wearing? What are people reading? What are people doing? And it was different than when everyone had gone into the pandemic. It unsettled a lot of people,” Monahan says.

This "vibe shift" is obviously born of the pandemic, but not in the way they are describing. The trends that have been created in the past ten years were created because of the internet. Information and images have never been able to be spread faster. You can constantly see what people are wearing and what people are doing, which is why Davis kept bringing up FOMO and the brief respite the pandemic provided from those feelings. When trying to shield yourself from the pandemic, it doesn’t matter what’s cool; but now that Covid is over for the third time, what’s cool matters again. And obviously, what’s cool is determined by the youth.

A demographic neither Davis or Monahan bring up are the pandemic high schoolers. The kids born in 2002/03 and after, who are now 18, 19, and 20. The important thing about them is that they attended and graduated high school online. Even if some of them were still kind of hanging out with each other in person, there was an immediate halt to the actual experience of being inside of a building with other 16 year olds. Classes were online and clubs, sports, and events were more or less canceled for the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021. My brother, born in 2003, 19 years old, didn’t actually finish his junior year of high school and had his entire senior year of high school online. A lot of these kids were kind of fucking off, living with their parents, not able to hang out with their friends, or talking to that many people IRL — hence the rise of TikTok.

I don’t credit TikTok as the actual apex of the vibe shift, realistically it’s just social media as a whole, but there is something distinct about the people who graduated high school even just two or three years after me. I noticed it almost immediately when I got back to campus after a year of being away. I attribute this to contextless image sharing, which is something incredibly easy to do on all social media platforms. Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Pinterest revolve around this idea of online curation of the self. You can find a hot girl or micro-influencer you think is interesting or cool, and apply the parts of their online persona that you like to your own. I think this started happening more and more during the pandemic, especially when the eight hours of high school you’d usually attend suddenly turns into like five hours of sitting in front of a computer in your room. I feel like I was beginning to see people’s online personas walking around in Decafe.

In addition to being able to copy and paste parts of different personalities, clothing has become incredibly easy to source online. Clothes have always been an enormous signifier of who’s hot, but now, along with the help of micro trends and fast fashion, fashion subcultures are more visible than they ever have been before. Fifteen years ago, it wouldn’t really be possible to find every article of clothing that a celebrity is wearing in a paparazzi photo. But now, in the comments section of a TikTok, you can find a head-to-toe breakdown of Bella Hadid’s street fashion, who designed her outfit, where to buy it, and maybe most importantly, where to buy a dupe. Fashion is inherently inaccessible, but now with the popularity of fast fashion, thrifting, and buying clothes second hand online (Depop, Poshmark, eBay, etc, etc) there is an illusion of information and accessibility.

I see people post ‘mood boards’ on TikTok that have ten images every second for a twenty second video. The images never have context and are often sourced without any context. Because these images are often obscure and where they come from is a secret, it’s now akin to not knowing who made a celebrity red carpet look. Except now, instead of actually having to participate in a subculture to know about it or even lie adjacent to it, it can be replicated.

It’s not that artists aren’t being credited, it’s that no one wants them to be. There is increasingly less of a need to have an actual understanding of art and culture to place yourself within that sphere. There is a massive amount of content being shown to us through our phones everyday and we are soaking it right up. The issue is that content has literally no real information propping it up.

Ultimately, Davis and Monahan are confused about the new vibe but have some predictions: “People going off in a lot of different directions because it doesn’t feel like there’s a coherent, singular vision for music or fashion,” says Monahan. He talks about the revival of indie sleaze and irony, but I think his unclear understanding of what’s going to happen next is because trends are being watered down.

Buying into a trend no longer requires actual knowledge or interest in its origins. No one knows what movie that girl is from, no one knows the context of the artist they like, no one knows that song is a sample, and it’s because they don’t need to know. The rapid online content distribution that defines the social lives of today’s youth abandons authenticity in lieu of aesthetics. TikTok and Instagram let young content consumers replicate the trends they see on their screens quickly and cheaply with no context needed. Trends have become separated from their cultural origins, and their dissociated form becomes a clueless cultural moment in of themselves. And so I agree that the vibe is shifting: we’re entering the age of the poser.

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