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2 March 2022

A night out proves that reports of a “vibe shift” have been greatly exaggerated

At the Phoenix Arts Club in the West End, it’s as if the year is 2009 as “I Will Survive” and “Mamma Mia” blast over the dance floor.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Reader, I have discovered a time machine. It can be found in the heart of the West End, through an unassuming doorway that leads down a hidden staircase beneath one of London’s historic theatres. Here at the Phoenix Arts Club on a Saturday night, it’s as if the year is 2009 and I’ve just started university. I’m in a dimly lit basement bar, drinking G&Ts by the bucketful and raving to the hits that defined my late teens: “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, “Teenage Dirtbag”, “Living on a Prayer”, “Mamma Mia”, “My Sharona”, “Hit Me Baby One More Time”, “I Will Survive”.

How serendipitous, I thought the first time I ventured down those stairs, to have found a bar dedicated to reviving the vibe of my misspent early adult years. Until my companion – a decade my senior – shouted over the inevitable riffs of “Don’t Stop Believing” that he too was reliving his student glory days. A scan of the dance floor revealed he was far from the only representative of the early-Eighties cohort, but the gaggle of baggy-jeaned Gen Z girls, who must have been born a full 20 years after the song came out, were having just as much fun.

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There’s been a flurry of frenzied excitement online in recent weeks that a “vibe shift” is coming which we may or may not “survive”. According to Sean Monahan, the trend forecaster (yes, apparently that’s a real thing), the pandemic and its aftershocks have triggered an overhaul in culture, music and fashions – and anyone who doesn’t realise it risks being left behind. Earnestness, authenticity, fairy lights and self-improvement are out – grungy indie nihilism is in, complete with ironic emo haircuts and neon miniskirts. In order to evolve and adapt in the new world order, we must all act and dress like a grumpy teenager from 1992.

If this seems incomprehensible, you are not alone. While Monahan and I are fairly close in age, his predictions about what constitutes a vibe shift make about as much sense to me as a lecture on cryptocurrency makes to my cat. Yes of course things come in and out of fashion – skinny jeans, emojis, Little Mix – but it seems bizarre to flatten the wealth of subcultures and social tribes into one monolithic aesthetic that can be turned on and off like an ethnological light switch. It’s like trying to nail a veneer of profundity over style choices, like creating a Hegelianism of hemlines, or a philosophy of chintz.

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But it’s not just the diversity of individual expression that makes me suspect that agonising over the vibe shift is pointless. That the singers in the Phoenix Club can produce a set list that delights an audience whose ages span 30 years suggests fashions aren’t as fickle as internet trendsetters would have you think. These songs might be cheesy, with predictable chord progressions and clichéd lyrics, but they make generation after generation buzz and shimmy, with any desire to be trendy overruled by the electrifying need to dance.

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Sturgeon’s Law, coined by the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon in the 1950s, posits that 90 per cent of everything is crap. That goes for any art form, any genre, any period of history. If you’ve ever wondered why so much modern music (whatever your definition of modern is) sounds boring and derivative compared to the anthems of your youth, it’s because it is – you’ve just forgotten all the chaff released alongside those enduring hits. Only the 10 per cent that survives is the really good stuff – it has to be, by definition.

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Looking back to my uni days, most of the songs we were dancing to weren’t topping the charts at the time. They’d been released years, sometimes decades before. Sure, we went to gigs and mined Soundcloud and Bandcamp to discover new artists who reflected the depths of our tortured millennial souls, but the stuff we actually danced to in sweaty, sticky-floored clubs? Those were the classics with the power to defy vibe shifts. And they’re the songs that spark a euphoric nostalgia on the Phoenix stage, transporting revellers back in time, to a moment when everything felt possible as long as you just kept dancing.

Pippa Bailey is away

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times