Is Anything Trendy Anymore?

In fashion, in music, subcultures that feed the mainstream have given way to niche aesthetics.

A model in the Calvin Klein New York Fall/Winter 2015 show  (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

What is trendy right now?

I write about music from time to time, so I suppose it’s my job to know this. But I don’t know if I can tell you confidently what schools are ascendant. Some artists are popular, of course: Taylor Swift and Beyoncé bestride the Earth. And while Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars sit at number one with the funk equivalent of Coke Zero, are they, like, hip?

Wait, no: D’Angelo is cool, trendy.

As many before me have noted, music is now too splintered to qualify as having any single direction—to talk about in any way outside of intra-musical conversations whirling themselves into ever more thorny complexes. What interests me is that two essays appeared in the last week alone suggesting that this is not only happening in music anymore.

In last week’s T Magazine, pegged to New York Fashion Week, former New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn admitted she didn’t know what was trendy either. Nor, she added, did she think it was possible for a look to “trend” anymore.

“There is no single trend that demands our attention, much less our allegiance, as so many options are available to us at once,” she wrote. She contrasted it with the past:

Of course, throughout the 20th century, the way women dressed was governed by trends—from the hobble skirt of the 1910s, a Paris invention that spread to small cities and was ultimately sold by Sears, to Dior’s radical New Look of 1947, to the ’60s miniskirt. But for lots of reasons, mostly to do with economics and, inevitably, the Internet, the industry has moved away from that model.

The last time Horyn can remember a trend moving from the runway to “mainstream manufacturers” were these green cargo pants, and “that was more than a decade ago.”

So who does she blame? Not just the Internet, which splinters culture into a thousand different directions by supplanting big-name fashion magazines with ten-thousand happy Instagrammers. The economy, too, is to blame, by distracting designers with enormous price tags available on the luxury market.

Meanwhile, over at The Fader, the musicologist Adam Harper writes about health goth, the Internet-born aesthetic that merged body-fitting athletic fabrics with the high contrast of a clean room. His column tackles what music might best correspond to the movement, but before he gets there, he opens with a provocation:

How about this: these days there are no scenes or genres, only "aesthetics." A scene implies a physical community in physical architectures, and as such is a fatal slur against the URL everspace and its viral lungs. A genre implies limits, intentions, rules, fixity, and—as every itchy-fingered Facebook commenter knows—is a hateful thing. Nothing exists anyways, not really, only names, only hyperlinks, only patterns that work up to a point and then need an upgrade. Backspace your tearful emojis, hypocrites, it's always been that way; it's just more obvious now that code flows through our arteries rather than squeezes of blood and other smells. But it's not homogenous out there and never will be, the online underground and the cultures tapping its magma are built on a vector field that ripples and clumps together, each blob too quick and continuous for your Dad's rock collection. An aesthetic is not an object, it's a way of looking, a way of finding beauty and sifting experiences, originating with process and behavior rather than product, or, indeed, a journalist with a butterfly net.

[…] "Aesthetic," a word that doesn't prioritize any one particular medium of art and even suggests them all together, is a much more suitable term than "trend" or "genre," and highly applicable to previous online-underground-led movements like vaporwave and sea punk for which imagery and multimedia is a hugely significant and probably defining factor.

It’s been noted elsewhere that among urban coastal twentysomethings especially there are no subclasses of personage anymore: no punks or goths, just the bland, ever-fracturing hip. (Which is perhaps another way of saying that we don’t link fashion to music to politics as much anymore: See a lumbersexual on the street, and you can only draw so many conclusions about which MP3s they listen to—and how they vote.) I like this term—“aesthetic”—to describe what those fractures look like, and I think the replacement of movements with aesthetics leads to a good deal of the artist is dying!-type rhetoric. If you’re a critic accustomed to following one type of storyline, it’s hard to track a new one.

It’s tempting to write that art has always been so polyphonic, and that the Internet has only just revealed how manufactured those old, “mainstream” trends were. I think that’s mostly the case—though access to documentation has surely changed artistic conversations big and small. It’s a commonplace that now, the most prestigious glossies are just another JPEG linked from your Pinterest board. But even the most underground blogs are, too.