No Genre, Just Vibes
I’m excited to be giving a talk at the University of Hartford’s Hartt Conservatory this Wednesday November 17, 2021 at 12:30 Eastern. It will be simulcast on Zoom, and anyone can get the zoom info by emailing Karen Cook, whose info is on the flyer below.
I’ll be speaking about what “vibes” are, why there a Thing now, and what’s going on when streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music tout “vibes” as a more progressive musical category than identity-laden genre. You can read the full text of the talk here, and I’ve posted the info below.
I’ll get right to the point: today I want to think about what it means to use “vibe” as a musical category in place of genre. For example, the description for Apple Music’s “Vibes” playlist reads “the most exciting sound right now isn’t found within the boundaries of traditional genres.” This description implies that “vibe” more progressive than genre, because vibe is less invested in rigid boundaries. But is vibe really more progressive than genre? Or does vibe just draw different sorts of boundaries?
But before we get to these questions, let’s start out by figuring out what people even mean by “vibe.” For decades, various counter- and sub-cultures used the term “vibe(s)” to describe what made them different from the mainstream. From hippies and their “good vibrations” to DJs curating dancefloor vibes to the hip hop publication VIBE Magazine, a vibe was something that pulsed to the beat of a different drummer. As late as 2006, The New York Times uses “vibe” to describe the ineffable New-Agey feel of Sedona, Arizona.
[However, sometime in the last five years, “vibes” got co-opoted by capitalism. As Twitter user and sound studies doctoral student @AmbreLynae put it in an August, 2021 tweet, “When Black people use the word “vibe” we usually talkin bout kickin back with our friends in a cool place. When [whites] use the word “vibe” they finna gentrify a community.” Appropriated from its subcultural roots, “vibe” has now become the language of brands and entrepreneurs. For example, beauty company CHI has a Gen-Z targeted line of haircare products called “CHI Vibes” that categorizes products not by type (such as mousse, conditioner, etc.), but by vibes such as “wake & fake” or “know-it-all.” The Twitter bio of venture capital firm Bedrock co-founder Geoff Lewis identifies him as a “vibe capitalist.”
“Vibe” is Lewis’s way of describing Bedrock’s signature investment strategy, which looks for startups who orient themselves against conventional market wisdom or “narratives.” As Bedrock’s website explains, it targets startups whose views of the market and their place in it “are either too one-of-a-kind to fit with the popular narratives of the day, or they violate what the narrative gatekeepers deem plausible or possible.” The website lists examples of such narratives, including Tinder’s rejection of the view that “dating apps are always fads,” or DoorDash’s flouting of the truism “food delivery is too capital intensive” (by, um, stealing tips from delivery workers :/). The idea is that startups whose narratives are dissonant with mainstream common sense have the best potential to revolutionize and perhaps dominate their sector. Regardless of this method’s success, the point is that Bedrock measures a startup’s market potential in terms of its vibe or orientation to the world–that’s what “narrative” stands for. “Vibe capitalists” such as Lewis understand markets as vibes. The discourse of vibes appears to have been gentrified from the counter-culture to the C-suite. Though they once reflected alternative ways of thinking, today “vibes” are now so mainstream as to be basic–in October 2021 Gawker editor in chief Leah Finnegan put “vibe” on the website’s list of banned words.
The first part of my talk studies the how the vibes hashtag is used on social media to determine what this new, very mainstream use of “vibe” means by that term. I will show that vibes are not affects, feelings, or emotions, but subjective orientations, perspectival horizon, or one’s mutual situatedness in a milieu. I then compare the way Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok users construct posts tagged with #vibes to the way recommendation algorithms work. Like #vibes social media posts, recommendation algorithms also plot out subjective orientations or a perspectival horizon. Vibes are a capital-T Thing today because they are pop culture analogs of the mathematical processes AI, ML, and other forms of contemporary tech use to perceive and surveil us. Vibes are how we see ourselves the way algorithms see us.
The final part of my talk turns to studying the ways music streaming services Spotify and Apple music use vibes as a category for organizing music. These services push “vibes” over genre in order to get us to hear music the way their algorithms do. Building on the work of anthropologist Nick Seaver, I’ll show that although Spotify sells “vibe” as more progressive than genre because it overcomes genre’s traditional association with race, class, and gender identities, this sell is a bait and switch: Spotify’s flagship vibe playlist POLLEN reworks traditional sexist and racist biases about what counts as “good” music into new forms less directly tied to genre and more directly tied to listener vibe.
POLLEN is curated around the vibe of musical avidity. “Avidity,” or the active interest in new and different music, is the quality that recommendation algorithm programmers hold up as the central feature of the ideal music listener–who, it just so happens, also happens to be them. Because these programmers tend to be overwhelmingly cis male and mostly white, POLLEN’s “Genre-less. Quality First” vibe ends up being the vibes era’s version of rockism. Rockism, as Kelefa Sanneh canonically defined it in 2004, is the view that music by and for white cis men (like rock) is inherently superior to music by and for anyone else–it turns the preferences of the most privileged group of people in our society into supposedly universal aesthetic criteria. POLLEN’s vibe draws the same boundary around what counts as good music that rockism does, just without overt reference to either genre or identity. So, as I will conclude at the end of the paper, “vibe” is not necessarily any more progressive or less invested in boundaries than genre.