Dirt: Hot regression summer
Self-improvement? In this economy?
Katie Rothstein on speedrunning trends and refusing personal development.
Something I’ve been saying to my friends lately is that this is shaping up to be the summer of regression. Make bad decisions! Go on a bender! Quit your job! Get back with your ex! Act like you’re 21 again! Max out your credit card and just have a good time! Throw all caution to the wind and do only the things you absolutely want to do, with zero regard for your health, happiness, or future peace of mind. Gleefully regress into the worst version of yourself. Gone are the exuberantly light days of last year’s “hot vaxx summer”; it’s dark and toxic vibes only for 2022.
The phrase started out as a joke about making bad choices, but I’ve come to realize the regression sentiment has a chilling resemblance to certain societal and cultural trends. America is certainly regressing into its worst self right now. The impending rollback of abortion rights, the plague of shootings, an impending recession, the threat of nuclear war. On the one hand, this is a call to arms to be the adult in the room of your own life–on the other hand, who says that adult can’t be a little sauced?
“Pop culture” is regressing, too. It’s not just TV remakes and reboots. The buzziest young painters, like Anna Weyant, are making art that looks more like the 19th century. An entire genre has emerged of literally “remaking” pop cultural moments in an attempt to create new ones. Take Winona Ryder starring in a Marc Jacobs campaign almost 20 years after the first, which was mostly iconic because of the shoplifting drama that preceded it. Or Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck re-staging scenes from her “Jenny From The Block” music video, which, without the original context of the video, becomes just paparazzi photos of them on a yacht. Dua Lipa and Megan Thee Stallion recreating Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey’s “we’re wearing the same dress!” bit from 1998 at the Grammy’s in April ended up just a weirdly staged moment that makes almost no sense when removed from the original.
These recreated moments are often masked as homage, but it’s pretty clear they’re little more than an attempt to reach for the past in order to escape the cursed present. If we keep going down this road of endlessly recreating iconic things, it follows that we’re both not creating anything new AND actively regressing. In five years, I highly doubt anyone is going to remember the second time Winona starred in a Marc Jacobs campaign. Originality isn’t really a going concern. When was the last time you experienced a piece of culture that felt unprecedented?
Time magazine recently described our current cultural era as “a tidal wave of tackiness,” but if you look closely, it’s not actually even bad taste that’s in style — there’s just a complete lack of it. The “vibe shift” discourse is just about the liminal nowhere space we’re in, trend-wise. Like an ocean liner that’s trying to change course, the shift hasn’t been completed yet. We’re stuck commenting foremost on its inexplicability.
At least we have TikTok to look at for new ideas? The app has allowed “micro-trends” like the Coastal Grandmother aesthetic, Short King Spring, cottagecore, and Emily Mariko salmon bowls to flourish, delivered to the mainstream by its algorithmic feed. But these micro-trends are more like categorizations, or peeks into the lives of other people’s hobbies. If you’re optimistic, it’s beautiful that TikTok made it so that we could all share the joy in one woman’s salmon bowl. What’s so bad about a little salmon bowl?
The pessimistic interpretation may be that in our desperate search for meaning and human connection on the internet, TikTok has killed trends altogether. “No one is sure exactly what a trend is anymore or if it’s just an unfounded observation gone viral,” writes Terry Nguyen in a recent piece on the topic for Vox. “Coastal Grandmother” is more or less an L.L. Bean catalog — is this cool, or just a thing that exists in the world?
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TikTok has also contributed to the death of true popular culture in a different way. As Trey Taylor brilliantly explained, “it’s no longer a monoculture.” Algorithmic recommendations have broken down our sense of a communal scene. This is obviously great when you’re scrolling at 2am and only being served content that you, personally, find funny. But it also creates a fractured cultural landscape that makes a monoculture somewhat impossible. So we latch onto things that end up on enough people’s FYPs to register as “viral,” to try to find some sense of order.
“Hot girl summer” and “Christian girl autumn” were coined in 2019, but it feels like every season since the beginning of the pandemic has needed a specific series of adjectives to make it legible. Meaning is less important than novelty; each label we embrace and discard just distracts from the deeper ennui. This year alone, we’ve already been blessed with Feral Girl Summer, Bugs Bunny Summer, and Hot Vaxx Summer Part 2. Consider this my contribution.
Even when I think of my own looming Hot Regression Summer, the label is also just a kind of permission to give up on meaning and order. Anyway, it’s too hot out for self-improvement. — Katie Rothstein