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15 December 2022

In defence of “vibes”

Is the term helpful for a sentimentally stunted age?

By Nick Burns

Over the past several years, the language of “vibes” has become mainstream, embraced by young people and marketing copy alike across large swathes of the Anglosphere.

The contemporary resurgence of the woo-woo slang of American 1960s counterculture has recently been the subject of a host of in-depth treatments by journalists on the pop culture beat. As astrology has developed a young, middle-class online following through the rise of popular astrology apps like Co-Star, the word “vibes” has caught on as a catch-all term for the set of impressions that one receives upon contemplating a given situation, individual, place, or nearly anything else.

This usage has become common enough for one US pundit to explain the result for Republicans in the midterm elections on 8 November – in which the Republican Party failed to break through in decisive races despite widespread expectations it would – by writing in the Atlantic that “the polls were basically right. It was the vibes that were wrong.”

A set of new terms has sprung up. A “vibe check” is an aesthetic judgement of a situation. The slightly menacing expression “good vibes only” is used, among other things, to declare one’s intent to keep “negative energy” out of a space or a gathering.

And the market is getting in on the fun. “Appropriated from its subcultural roots, ‘vibe’ has now become the language of brands and entrepreneurs,” argues the writer Robin James, citing a venture-capital fund founder who styles himself a “vibe capitalist”, and a beauty company with “a Gen-Z targeted line of haircare products called ‘CHI Vibes’” that sorts its customers into “vibes”, such as “know-it-all”.

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What to make of this new language of vibes – does it signal some substantial cultural shift, or is it just the latest, trendy way of saying nothing? The writer John Ganz has taken the latter position, criticising the language of vibes as an “aspiration to the condition of idiocy”, and for seeking to raise a “lazy habit of speech to [an] existential principle”.

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Others seem to take vibes more seriously. One recent treatment sparked consternation by channelling a “trend-forecasting” consultant’s warning of a forthcoming “vibe shift” that some would not “survive” – a kind of aesthetic Judgement Day, in which those who depended on established social media and liberal cultural bromides would be swept away as tastes changed.

Here, the notion of a “vibe shift” does seem to describe something real, but the term is ill-chosen: what is really being described is a generational shift. The generation that depended on a certain kind of liberal social-justice politics for its outlook and the golden age of Facebook and Instagram for its expression, is getting too old to set pop cultural trends. Some people are trying to stay relevant – but this is a losing game: in the end no one will “survive the vibe shift” because everyone eventually grows older and discovers the younger generation has different habits, the product of a different set of circumstances.

And the language of vibes itself? As a rhetorical tic it is certainly lazy and easily assimilable into the machine of corporate marketing copy, but that is true of many things. The language of vibes is best understood as the contemporary expression – however warped and feeble – of the natural human longing for a sentimental vocabulary, a way to speak about that which is perceptible yet intangible and unquantifiable. It presents a crude solution to the problems of a sentimentally stunted age.

[See also: The sovereign individual in Downing Street]

The longing to express sentimental judgement has had to find fulfilment in extremis through New Age slang because our contemporary vocabulary offers such a paltry set of outlets. The 21st-century vernacular is good for making empirical claims and moral demands – think of the factoids and culture-war battles that dominate TV programming as much as social media – but it offers few avenues for describing impressions.

Whether we would like to admit it or not, most people form their views of people and places, events and situations primarily by means of their impressions, rather than the relevant statistics or moral principles (though the latter informs the former). The question is whether we express our impressions as such or whether we choose to disguise them through some other vocabulary. Do I say, with confidence in my own judgement, that a restaurant I’ve been to is bad – or do I rely on its disappointing Yelp rating to make the argument for me, even though I would ignore the low number if I personally liked the place? Talking in terms of vibes provides a clumsy but workable means to re-assume ownership of one’s own impressions.

Reclaiming a measure of confidence – but not too much – in our own inclinations is important in an age when public discourse is so full of warring ethical imperatives. Consider so personal a decision as whether to have a child. Liberal outlets have been publishing articles calling into question the ethics of having a child in a warming planet for years. (A recent piece in the Washington Post noted that commonly cited research about the high climate impact of having a child rests on questionable assumptions.) Meanwhile, a “pronatalist” movement counting many conservatives among its ranks, as well as the Twitter CEO Elon Musk, has lately been touting the importance of having as many children as possible to prevent a possible population collapse.

What the right decision is, at the individual level, depends on so many things, and many of them are matters of the heart, impossible to put into the language of numbers and environmental or demographic policy. It’s necessary to maintain a degree of emotional solidity and confidence to avoid being buffeted by shifting currents of public discourse around personal questions. This is not “self-care”, to quote another recent trendy term: it is merely self-respect.

Having available means of formulating and discussing sentimental judgements can help. Prior eras had more sophisticated vocabularies for this. The 19th century boasted the emotional expressiveness of Romantic poetry, or the psychological complexity of the novels of Henry James. In terms of impressions of people in particular, it was common to speak of the quality of someone’s “conversation”, meaning, simply, what it was like to talk with them. Something of such central importance in describing a person is something for which we have few common terms today.

So we have to make do with what vocabularies present themselves, woo-woo or otherwise. The critics of the contemporary language of vibes – undoubtedly a pale shadow of past emotional lexicons – often see it as a kind of narcissism. Speaking this way, so the argument goes, abdicates the task of political judgement in favour of the arbitrary and infinitely alterable predilections of the individual taste, which are always beyond criticism. But surely the greater narcissism is to endlessly and self-servingly pass off one’s personal whims as general ethical and political guidelines, like an inverted categorical imperative.

If we are, in fact, headed towards an era in which public discourse does a better job of separating individual sentiment and political and moral righteousness, all the better. Vapidity is a risk inherent in all Californian cultural exports, the language of vibes included – I speak as a native Californian myself – but for a little breathing room for the expression of personal aesthetic judgement, a little vapidity is a small price to pay.

[See also: Elon Musk’s useful philosopher]

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