It’s August, and No One Knows What Kind of Summer It Is

For a moment it was hot vax summer; then the vibe sort of shifted.

Fuzzy image of people dancing at an indoor party
Alberto Pezzali / AP; The Atlantic

You wouldn’t remember this, but at the end of June I was honestly on a dance floor under a disco ball, shoulder to shoulder with sweaty strangers, most of whom were singing “Dancing Queen,” and we were all vaccinated against the coronavirus, so we were nervous enough to say “Do you think this is okay?” but not nervous enough to leave. It was hot vax summer! Just like we were promised! When that first big night out of the house resulted in a strep-throat diagnosis, I didn’t find it ominous at all. No, it was cute: two days of antibiotics and I was ready to get drunk on the Fourth of July.

Just a few weeks later, New York City was counting more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, and the primary topic of conversation in my social circle had turned to the season’s shifting vibes. The city’s energy was—some suggested—unsettling and weird. There were rumors of a “gay cold” circulating at Pride events, and then through a holiday cluster in Provincetown, Massachusetts. New York’s government started offering $100 bribes to get vaccinated, and its appeals took on a more desperate pitch. Over the span of a single week, Mayor Bill de Blasio went from touting the “summer of New York City” and rejecting the idea of any new mask mandates to acknowledging that the Delta variant had “changed the game.” (Meanwhile, his office is still planning to host a massive “homecoming” concert in Central Park on August 21.)

If the hot vax summer hasn’t yet been canceled, it’s certainly under threat. With seven weeks to go until the start of fall, we’ve been presented with an urgent and confusing question: What kind of summer is it now?

Every year since the advent of social media, April and May have been times to discuss plans for one’s “summer aesthetic” and to create summer mood and vision boards in preparation. Then the summer gets a name and anthem: [YEAR] was the summer of X, when the song of the summer was Y. Hot vax summer is a play on “hot-girl summer,” the dominant meme of 2019, a year you might be able to recall if you’ve recently watched an old season of reality television.

Summer 2021 seemed slippery, though, even before the Delta surge began. From the start it was weighed down with too much significance and too many narratives—too much rushing to live too many different ideas of normal life. The mood was, if not manic, careening. Lorde, whom most people hadn’t seen or heard from in four years, delivered a creepy beach bacchanal in early June; another song from the same album had the sleepiest anti-hot-vax-summer lyrics I can personally imagine: “My hot blood’s been burnin’ for so many summers now / It’s time to cool it down.” Meanwhile, brands set about their business. Old Navy ads from mid-July featured maskless families traveling wherever they wanted—including indoor public spaces!—and doing choreographed dances together, declaring a “hot fam summer,” which sounded disgusting but looked pretty fun. (“This commercial is driving me up a god damn wall,” a Reddit commenter wrote two weeks later. “It’s ALWAYS on … Why does Old Navy have people dancing around like we’re not in the end times for every commercial now?”)

Brock Colyar, the New York magazine party reporter who has been documenting hot vax summer in New York City with a weekly column, told me that a Pride party at the Standard in the last week of June—at which Madonna performed—was the pinnacle of the summer we were supposed to have. (You can see just how packed it was in an Instagram video posted by the Bravo host Andy Cohen.) “It’s a particularly good party for looking at how the mood changed around Delta,” Colyar said. People were smoking together and swigging from the same bottles of alcohol in a very small, closed-door space. “That was definitely one of those events where in the days after, a ton of people were saying they weren’t feeling well.” Now party-going 20-somethings are talking about having a kind of “existential disappointment” at the return of masks and social distancing, Colyar said, but they’re still at it, and the hot-vax-summer magazine column will play out to the end.

Everywhere you look, there’s another summer happening. Writing in The New Yorker, Kyle Chayka described a “main-character energy” among young people who want to “reclaim control” of their stories. One woman I follow on Twitter but do not actually know called this the summer of “refusing to investigate further”; another dubbed it “repenting girl summer bc I need so much grace & mercy.” I have no idea what any of these people are talking about. I’ve seen “armpit girl summer,” also unexplained. “Pinched by crabs summer.” Okay? Even the definition of hot-girl summer has become completely indecipherable: Lately, people have started insisting that this year’s hot girls are different from 2019’s hot girls in that they all have amnesia or irritable bowel syndrome and love tinned fish, which is “hot girl food.” Again: What!

I, for one, have been enamored of the idea of “DFW summer,” referring not to the Dallas–Fort Worth area but to the writer David Foster Wallace. There was this TikTok of a guy in a bandanna, to which the first reply was “it’s David Foster Wallace Summer.” On Instagram, an account called @infintejestcellectuals—which started counting down to “DFW summer” in May—reposted a TikTok of a girl in a silky bandanna standing on the edge of a crowded pool, zooming in on half a dozen other girls in silky bandannas and regretting the fact that she looked “like every other bitch.” DFW summer seems to be about the bandannas, mostly. But I liked the concept of this tweet from early June: “It’s DFW summer. it’s new sincerity summer it’s post-cringe summer.”

The precise meaning of the summer depends even more than usual, this year, on each person’s geography, risk tolerance, age, sense of their own importance. But one definition of the summer really lands. On July 23, the publicist Michael Lieberman tweeted a photo of Philip Seymour Hoffman grimacing on the back of a boat, drink in hand, American flag in the background—a screenshot from the 1999 murder movie The Talented Mr. Ripley—and captioned it “the summer of uncertain vibes” (26,000 likes). Of course! The summer of 2021 is the summer of not knowing what summer it is, or what label could possibly be appropriate. Some may still be trying to have a good time, but no one is entirely at ease.

When I messaged Lieberman to ask about his caption, he responded, fittingly, with statements posed as questions: “I just think people expected a crazy summer and we all kind of approached it cautiously in the end? Not disappointment as much as ambivalence?”

That sounds right?