TikTok and the Vibes Revival
Deep into the thoughtless hypnotism of TikTok one afternoon, I came upon an anonymous urban scene from inside a residential tower in Manchester, England. On an upper floor, beside huge windows shrouded in fog, a man was floating on his back in a gleaming pool, to the soundtrack of the plaintive Frank Ocean song “White Ferrari.” The ten-second video was hashtagged #vibin. In another clip, a woman demonstrated her morning routine, with shots of rumpled linen bedsheets, navy-blue satin pajamas, and a steaming mug of matcha, along with brief glimpses of other objects: a monstera plant, a burning chunk of palo santo, a busy street outside. Altogether, they evoked a mood of calm, enlightened, prettified productivity. The video was hashtagged #vibes. “I love the vibes at night here,” the caption of yet another TikTok montage read: a dim apartment lit by a pink neon sign that says “Where Love Lives,” a wandering Shiba Inu, an orb lamp on top of a Picasso art book, a wall-mounted flat-screen playing the popular ambient-music YouTube channel “lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to.” If I had to pinpoint it, I’d say that the video’s vibe was chill Gen-Z good taste, the world of a teen-ager whose parents have given up on curfews and screen-time restrictions: midnight-basement-desktop-computer vibes.
These brief flashes of seemingly normal life, compressed into short videos, are among TikTok’s bread-and-butter genres, and they have taken over my algorithmically curated feed on the app. Where others might get meme dances or practical jokes, I only see chill vibes. Casually cooking a meal in a swaying sailboat on the open Atlantic Ocean is a vibe. So is slaloming down the road on a skateboard to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” while swigging cranberry juice, as Nathan Apodaca did in a now famous TikTok. We know the meaning of the word “vibe,” of course. It’s a placeholder for an abstract quality that you can’t pin down—an ambience (“a laid-back vibe”). It’s the reason that you like or dislike something or someone (good vibes vs. bad). It’s an intuition with no obvious explanation (“just a vibe I get”). Many vibes don’t have specific names, but some do. Saudade, the Portuguese word for a bittersweet longing, could count as a vibe. So, too, could the Japanese iki, an attitude of casually disinterested elegance, or the German fernweh, the longing to be somewhere far away, evoked by distant vistas or unknown forests. (Hygge, the Danish quality of contented coziness, is a vibe that has been wholly commercialized in the United States.)
In the social-media era, though, “vibe” has come to mean something more like a moment of audiovisual eloquence, a “sympathetic resonance” between a person and her environment, as Robin James, a professor of philosophy at U.N.C. Charlotte wrote in a recent newsletter. What a haiku is to language, a vibe is to sensory perception: a concise assemblage of image, sound, and movement. (#Aesthetic is sometimes used to mark vibes, but that term is predominantly visual.) A vibe can be positive, negative, beautiful, ugly, or just unique. It can even become a quality in itself: if something is vibey, it gives off an intense vibe or is particularly amenable to vibes. Vibes are a medium for feeling, the kind of abstract understanding that comes before words put a name to experience. That pre-linguistic quality makes them well suited to a social-media landscape that is increasingly prioritizing audio, video, and images over text. Through our screens, vibes are being constantly emitted and received.
The word “vibe” is short for vibration—something that resonates and echoes, suffusing a space. In the early twentieth century, the term became associated with the vibraphone, a cousin of the marimba, which uses motorized fans beneath its bars to achieve a vibier sound. At the time of its invention, in the nineteen-twenties, musicians weren’t sure whether its nickname should be singular or plural, vibe or vibes—the latter eventually stuck. The instrument’s sound today immediately evokes a whole range of associations: Tropicália music, the mid-twentieth century’s obsession with Hawaii, shallow cosmopolitanism, and nostalgia hovering between sincere and ironic.
“Vibe” as slang, referring to an aura or feeling, emerged in the sixties, in California, and gave the word its enduring hippie associations. The underground paper Berkeley Barb made frequent use of it as early as 1965. The following year, the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations” exposed the slang to broader audiences. The song is about nigh-subconscious connection, being on the same wavelength: “I’m picking up good vibrations / She’s giving me excitations.” (There are no actual vibraphones on the track, but it does feature the equally vibey electro-theremin.) In a similar vein, the young writer Bibi Wein described vibes as “spirits touching” in “The Runaway Generation,” her 1970 investigation of rebellious American youth. But soon enough the word was being applied to just about anything. In 1973, the journal Cultures observed that “a roomful of people, a city or even a political campaign has its own set of vibrations.”
Like many trends that begin on the cultural vanguard, the word lost some of its potency as it was taken up by the mainstream. (“Vibes,” the word, “has no meaning for me,” the choreographer Trisha Brown said in the Performing Arts Journal in 1976.) Though we might often refer to an “eighties vibe” today—recalling the intersection, say, of shiny fabric, big hair, and smoke machines—the eighties and nineties were not particularly vibe-obsessed decades. Perhaps those decades were too rigid, too dominated by the pursuit of capital, to be resonant or receptive. (Vibe magazine, founded in 1993, presented a commodified view of hip-hop culture.) But during those decades vibes became a subject of philosophical fascination. In an article for the journal Thesis Eleven, from 1993, the German philosopher Gernot Böhme identified “atmosphere” as the basis for a new aesthetics of perception, a kind of over-all feeling that has much in common with vibe. Heidegger had used “mood” to describe the quality of being in the world, and Walter Benjamin had identified “aura” as the feeling inspired by the presence of a unique work of art, say, a painting. But Böhme saw much more mundane things—cosmetics, advertising, interior decoration—exuding their own kind of atmosphere, comprising an “aesthetics of everyday life.”
The political theorist Jane Bennett had a similar epiphany while gazing at a pile of trash in the gutter one sunny morning, an experience she recounted in her 2010 book “Vibrant Matter.” The discarded objects seemed suddenly invested with meaning: “the glove, the rat, the pollen, the bottle cap, and the stick started to shimmer and spark,” she wrote, forming a tableau “with the street, with the weather that morning, with me.” In other words, the entire moment had a vibe, greater than the sum of its parts and inextricable from each of them. Bennett argued that capitalism had encouraged us to ignore such vibes: a consumerist society, in which things are constantly thrown away and replaced, “conceals the vitality of matter.”
In some ways, the rise of digital life allowed for a vibe revival. Online, we could collect and curate vibes. As with tracking rare species of birds, spotting a vibe—and recording it—became an end goal in itself. The musician Ezra Koenig did so, back in 2005, on a blog he called Internet Vibes: “BRITISH/RAIN/GREY VIBES,” “late 90’s Radiohead/global anxiety/airports/bleak technological future,” and “FRESH/CLEAN” like a Morton Williams supermarket. That was before the advent of camera phones, which allowed us to capture vibes in the real world, and before the rise of Instagram, which might have been social media’s first native platform for vibes. There you could compose a mood in images, communicating an over-all personality. The overhead life-style-tableaux shot that became the dominant Instagram cliché presented a vibe: the arid cool of sunlight, marble, and cappuccino. Instead of Bennett’s resonant pile of trash, however, these assemblages were often used to sell something—if not a specific product, then the “brand” of the influencers posting them. Robin James describes this phenomenon as “vibe-capitalism.” If tightly associated with a product or company, a vibe can become a kind of free-floating commercial, including or alienating audiences based on their tastes. Think of the association of healthy-yet-intoxicating Californian bohemianism with the clothing brand Reformation or of turbocharged techno-masculinity with Tesla cars.
Whereas Instagram’s main form is the composed tableau, captured in a single still image or unedited video, TikTok’s is the collection of real-world observations, strung together in a filmic montage. (Though last year Instagram added a new feature, Reels, in an attempt to compete.) TikTok’s technology makes it easy to crop video clips and set them to evocative popular songs: instant vibes. Its “For You” feed curates a mélange of content algorithmically, based on each user’s patterns of engagement. The result is a platform that runs on vignettes, superficial flashes of discrete sensation. As Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden, the Amsterdam-based founders of the avant-garde film-and-design collective Metahaven, put it to me, “TikTok provides a rebuke to the truism that people want narratives.” The man I saw paddling in his Manchester-skyscraper lap pool is not trying to explain or sell anything—he is simply vibing, and the rest of us are just watching, consuming that state of harmony without expecting anything more from it. The other day, I messaged that man on TikTok to ask about the video (which he now has set to private). His name is Nigel Kabvina, and he’s a twenty-five-year-old bartender. “I was thinking about the feeling of trying to unwind,” he told me. “The song brings me back to a time before adulting stress and responsibility.”
Vibes were made for the Internet not just because they’re audiovisual but because, like all memes, they are participatory. Anyone can assemble her own version. They’re not scarce or limited-edition. Replication doesn’t cheapen them. On social media, users not only curate vibes but generate new ones. “Cursed,” for instance, is an Internet vibe that signifies “increasingly generalized feelings of anxiety and malaise,” as Jia Tolentino has written, evoked by disquieting images of things where they don’t belong—say, a Chuck E. Cheese automaton left decaying in a dump, gracefully “vibing” despite its circumstances. The more recent “cringe” is a secondhand embarrassment or shame that can also be consumed proactively as content, like a horror movie. On TikTok, some of the aesthetic mood boards that began on Tumblr in the twenty-tens have become tribal as vibes: cottagecore, a twee-leaning return to nature (herbal tinctures, patterned frocks), and dark academia, a riff on Goth culture by way of Scottish boarding school (foreboding castles, heavy tweeds). Users mold and document their non-virtual lives in the image of these labels. The vibe moves from the Internet into the physical world and back again, a wavelength on the radar of our perceptions. (TikTok also serves up plenty of prompts to buy or shop; it’s not hard to imagine prepackaged kits sold on the platform to aspiring dark academics.)
Peli Grietzer, a young literary scholar who has theorized about social-media-era vibes, told me recently that “vibes-talk is becoming more and more a native language for us all.” He added a caveat: “Not sure which ‘we’ that is—maybe just the very online.” Exhausted by the Internet of personalities and expressed individuality, constantly measured and sorted by likes, we perhaps find comfort in turning our gaze outward. There is a self-effacement that takes place in embracing this new language, a sense that you are not “the main character” of a situation, as another TikTok meme might describe it, but a replaceable observer. “No thoughts, just vibes,” one online mantra goes, and after a year of constant anxiety it has a certain appeal. In a recent newsletter, the writer Mary Retta explained that she had been “vibing” throughout quarantine: “Not doing anything, and yet not doing nothing; refusing a schedule, ignoring your watch, but still filling days with intention, somehow.” Vibes can be an adjustment to circumstances, an almost defensive pursuit of harmony. “To vibe is to shape time into pleasure,” Retta wrote.
When I watch a morning-routine TikTok from “an herbalist and cook living in a Montana cabin,” I take in the mood of December sunlight, coffee in a ceramic mug, a vegetable rice bowl, tall pine forest, with a slowed-down Sufjan Stevens soundtrack—a nice creative-residency or hipster-pioneer vibe. After absorbing a dozen such videos at a stretch, I look up from my phone and my own apartment glows with that same kind of concentrated attention, as if I were seeing it in montage, too. The objects around me are lambent with significance. I can take in the vibe of my home office: hibiscus tree, hardwood desk, noise-cancelling headphones, sixties-jazz trio, to-go coffee cup. I suddenly feel a little more at home, as if the space belonged to me in a new way, or I had found my place within it as another element of the over-all vibe, playing my part. The vibes are all around us, for the taking. You don’t have to be a poet or philosopher, don’t even have to post anything online. All you have to do is notice.