Don’t Be Embarrassed to Commit to the Bit

When you push ironic enjoyment far enough, you can end up back at sincerity.

Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic; Youness Srhiri / Anadolu Agency / Getty

Before last summer, Adonna Biel, a 27-year-old who works in communications, did not consider herself a fan of the high-energy rapper Pitbull. She knew the hits—“Timber,” featuring Kesha; the club smash “I Know You Want Me”—because Pitbull was elemental to the 2010s pop music that Biel had grown up hearing. But she’d given Pitbull little thought until last July, when she heard that he was performing an hour away from where she lived in Washington, D.C. She mentioned it offhandedly to some work friends. Things escalated. Within days, Biel and five of her colleagues—who had spent hardly any time together outside of the office—got their hands on VIP tickets.

Not only that: They assembled a collaborative playlist of Pitbull tracks. They rented a car, which they dubbed the “Pitbus,” to take them to the concert. On the ride over, one co-worker passed around a bald cap. (Pitbull is famously bald.) And at the concert itself, Biel bought a Pitbull shirt.

They did it all, Biel told me, to commit to the bit—a phrase with roots in the stand-up-comedy scene but that has, in recent years, come to describe something of a Gen Z and younger-Millennial life practice. When you want to act in a way that’s a little embarrassing or out of character, it’s easier to frame it as a kind of extended charade. “I’m not sure we were willing to label ourselves as fans of Pitbull,” Biel said, “but by turning it into a bit, we could fully commit to what we were doing without fear of judgment.”

Many people seem to be committing to the bit right now: teen boys dressing up in suits to watch Minions: The Rise of Gru, Shrek-themed rave attendees, TikTok health influencers who have turned the attainment of fitness into a series of comedy sketches. And have you seen the sneakerheads wearing those giant red cartoon boots? A bit could be an outfit you wear or an event you attend, but it is usually defined by escalation. When you commit to a bit, you don’t just go to the Pitbull concert; you show up dressed to the nines in Mr. Worldwide merch, ready to shriek every word to “Hotel Room Service.”

Committing to the bit is not new. It has some overlap with camp and kitsch, but it most closely maps onto an economic concept called “ironic consumption,” where people spend money on items or events that they consider to be inconsistent with their usual identity. Think of punk-rock teens in the ’90s buying D.A.R.E. T-shirts. “It’s supposed to have this extra layer, this ironic layer, of ‘I’m not being fully serious,’” Alf Rehn, a professor of management at University of Southern Denmark who has written about the economics of useless purchases, told me.

The practice has long flirted with the line between mockery and earnest appreciation. In the early 20th century, people crammed into New York City music halls to watch a wealthy—but woefully untalented—socialite named Florence Foster Jenkins try her hand at opera. Jenkins’s voice often cracked; when she couldn’t hit a note, she skipped past it. It became “one of the weirdest mass jokes New York has ever seen,” one journalist commented. Nearly everyone in the audience seemed to be in on it—except, possibly, Jenkins herself. Yet at the peak of her career, in the 1940s, Jenkins packed Carnegie Hall; some seats commanded an admission price of $20—or $335 in today’s money. You can see traces of ironic consumption in the 1.3 million sales of pet rocks—literally rocks sold in cardboard boxes—beginning in the 1970s, or in the Showgirls watch parties of the late 1990s, when sales of the critically panned box-office flop skyrocketed as soon as it became available on home video. “There can be nothing more hilarious than getting drunk and watching Showgirls,” a special-events director at the Manhattan club Webster Hall told The New York Times in 1996.

Yet, in recent years, ironic consumption seems to have accelerated, this time with a slightly different focus and a new linguistic framing. “Bit culture” has taken off with the rise of TikTok and YouTube, which can train users to turn their everyday life into stunts and stories. Meanwhile, the potential for virality on these digital platforms means that a bit can rapidly become a cultural movement so potent that movie theaters end up banning teen boys in suits from Minions screenings. Sharing ironic consumption on social media, Rehn said, makes us “feel that we’re part of the tribe.”

Exactly to what extent parody has infiltrated our habits is difficult to track. The co-authors of a 2018 study on ironic consumption, Caleb Warren and Gina Slejko, found that 25 percent of their 301 survey respondents had at one point made an ironic purchase. But Warren, a marketing professor at the University of Arizona, cautions that these numbers should be approached skeptically. One problem: There is little agreement on what constitutes an ironic purchase. “There’s never going to be a clear boundary between something that’s ironic and something that’s not,” Warren told me. Most people have at least some secret interest in the products they claim to engage with ironically. You might say you bought that Shawn Mendes poster as a joke, but if you’ve streamed his entire discography, is something not genuinely pulling you toward his music?

In her 1999 book, No Logo, Naomi Klein positions ironic consumption as a rejection of brand marketing. The young Gen Xers she writes about weren’t rejecting consumer practices outright; they were turning consumerism into a joke: dropping acid at Disney World, wearing kitsch clothing rather than what brands told them was cool. Klein quotes the zine Hermenaut, which instructs readers to “revel” in these experiences but adds, “Let’s never succumb to the glamorous allure of these things.”

By Naomi Klein

Versions of these attitudes appear on TikTok today, but the defining element of a bit may be less a political stance than a desire to sample identities. People embrace, if not aspire to, the appeal of being someone else. “I think [committing to the bit] means stepping really fully into a certain persona,” Laura Reilly, a fashion writer who discussed wearing outrageous outfits “for the bit” in a recent edition of her newsletter, told me.

If committing to the bit means exploring the contours of a new persona, then perhaps it starts with a curiosity: What would it feel like to be that person for a day? Rehn suspects that this urge may be the result of never having had so many identities on view. Social media has made many musical and fashion subcultures discoverable to audiences who have no real-life connection to them. Swipe through enough TikToks, for instance, and you might find yourself enmeshed in the internal squabbles of the beekeeping world. At the same time, the decontextualization of subcultures online can easily reduce a rich, complex community or way of living into a series of superficial aesthetic signifiers and spending choices. Unlike the ironic purchases of the ’90s, today’s bits don’t sneer at consumerism; many use parody as an excuse to indulge in it.

The contemporary version of ironic consumption can still have its own delights, though. Lovers of the bit might find that when you push irony far enough, you end up back at sincerity. When Biel finally made it to her first Pitbull concert, she was surprised by how intergenerational the crowd was. Little kids and their parents danced alongside older couples and groups of friends in their 20s and 30s. Also surprising: Biel knew far more songs than she had expected to. Pitbull himself was electrifying. And Biel felt she was breaking new ground with her co-workers. “We danced like we’d been friends for our entire lives,” she said. When they all went home late that night, they seemed willing to call themselves Pitbull fans—unironically. “We were like, ‘Okay, so same time next year,’” Biel said.

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