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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Age of Everything Culture Is Here

The latest and most laughable online fad erupted in late January, when beauty influencers on TikTok—many of them young white women—started uploading clips of a particular, but not particularly novel, skincare hack as part of their nighttime regimen: lathering their faces in Vaseline.

Called “slugging,” the practice is meant to act as a kind of age-freezing elixir. Its name is drawn from a corner of South Korean TikTok and alludes to snail slime, which has a gloss similar to Vaseline (Aquaphor is another common brand used by sluggers). In one video posted that month, marketing student @Abbikuy’s face is caked in the gooey substance as she mimics the audio of a Black creator, a common trope on the app. The video is layered with text that reads: “When my bf asks me why I come to bed looking like a greasy founding father.” At 4.3 million views, it is among her highest-performing posts. But despite the video’s viral appeal, it was nothing new. Petroleum jelly has been used in Black households for generations as a restorative balm—equal parts moisturizer, lubricant, and healing ointment.

What the popularization of slugging on the internet represents is an ongoing, and unmistakably American, battle over ownership: the masking of cultural theft as cultural literacy. It should come as no surprise that slugging videos have garnered hundreds of millions of views. TikTok’s fabric is woven through with appropriation. Ownership is a shared vocabulary on the app. Nothing is ever one’s alone.

It's no secret: Black culture drives pop culture. It is “the original avant-garde,” as Felipe Luciano, a former TV producer, has said. What's happening now is an acceleration of a phenomenon that began in the late 1980s, when corporations started to deliberately mine Black cool as hip-hop was becoming a global force (I do sometimes wonder if appropriation is a prerequisite of Black culture going mainstream). The adoption of social media—which enables people to make, shape, and share anything they want and call it their own, even when it’s not—only further distorts what we experience on these platforms. Feeds are flooded with culture that, translated through the screen of a creator who is only interested in clout, comes across as hollow and cheapened.

What is surprising, however, is how slugging videos on TikTok—along with a cacophony of other macro- and micro-crazes across the social internet—have ushered in a remarkable, and remarkably demanding, new period. Generated, propelled, and legitimized by social platforms, trends have taken on a new form altogether. They will never be the same.

A generation’s currency is measured in trends. They are the moments that make an era mouthwateringly memorable. Only these fads are no longer dictated by a handful of tastemakers. Instead, what gets crowned as cool is often determined by how well a trend appeals to the rhythms of a specific platform. An idea’s artistic or cultural cachet depends on how easily it can be executed with the tools provided. Before the internet demanded our attention 24/7, television, radio, and lifestyle magazines had a very specific grip on the zeitgeist, combing youth culture to determine the next craze. Now, gauging cool is a far more democratic endeavor, and the escalating speed of digital culture means that fads can come and go before they even peak. Mediated through platforms, all trends, to a degree, eventually become memes, the digital tongue we all speak.

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In the days of pre-digital media, trends were an analog endeavor. They lacked the disarming velocity of social media; you had to seek them out. During my teenhood, in the corner of Los Angeles where I grew up, this happened a number of ways. The chief pipeline of cool was television, and particularly music videos. Rappers and R&B artists were the purveyors of taste in my world (I will never live down my tall tee era). Culture magazines from Vibe to XXL also offered a window into the kind of style young boys like me were trying to embrace and fashion into their own. The clothes I wore, the music I listened to, the things I liked, they were all discovered through channels I had to seek out. Nothing was automated.

But yesterday is not today. Social media grants access, and with access comes voice. Platforms now frame even the smallest curiosities into billboard-worthy pursuits. The outcome of this unique recalibration is an unnerving reality: The age of Everything Culture has arrived. In this new world, everything essentially becomes A Thing.

Thus: Dance challenges are A Thing. Digital blackface is A Thing. Slugging is A Thing. Celibacy TikTok is A Thing. Cryptocurrency is A Thing. NFTs are A Thing. The metaverse is A Thing. Pandemic brain is A Thing. The Great Resignation is A Thing. Being woke is A Thing. BIPOC is A Thing. Cancel culture is A Thing. Podcasting is A Thing. Wordle is A Thing. Vibes are A Thing. Everything is A Thing. Nothing is A Thing.

Our simultaneous embrace of macro- and micro-crazes—and, more specifically, the effect they have on us—is what author and critic Chuck Klosterman describes as “the feeling” of an era. In his book, The Nineties, he writes about how we understand, and in turn remember, stretches of time (his eye is focused distinctly on, as his title signals, the 1990s). “Decades are about cultural perception,” he writes. “Despite an overabundance of historical information, the collective memory of the decade tends to be simplified and minimized, dictated more by the texture of the time than by anything that transpired. And yet: The texture is what mattered.”

And it still does. It’s the most telling sign of this era. More significant than what trends represent on their own and in the moment is what they collectively symbolize. Ours is a period of increasing noise. Everything is bleeding into everything around it. All trends, large and small, now suggest a new cultural mood—but only until the next Vaseline-smeared obsession comes along. The years ahead will be a time defined by our transient impulses, spurred by smarter technologies and momentary trends. I used to think the rate at which we metabolized culture was a bad thing. I believed our fleeting curiosities cheapened digital life—that we were moving too quickly and too recklessly—but perhaps that’s what the future we built feels like: a carousel in constant motion, a doomed thrill ride with no exit. 

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