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The case for following fads

The pandemic stole our sense of connectedness. In their own way, viral trends help us regain it. 

An illustrated collage with Peloton exercise bikes, potted houseplants, disco balls, and coffee drinks on a light blue background.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Part of the Fads Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

I had never listened to Bonnie Pointer’s disco cover of “Heaven Must Have Sent You” before the pandemic.

It’s so much song crammed into seven minutes and 14 seconds. Bells that sound like they were stolen from a Christmas carol give way to swishy violins and a bass guitar that wub-wubs around a thumping drum that’s faster than a heartbeat. Bonnie’s voice (which you might know from the group she formed with her sisters back in the ’70s, the Pointer Sisters) starts as a dreamy whisper and by the end, grounds itself into a Louis Armstrong rasp.

The 1979 hit has become the tune I listen to at the gym, on my walks to the grocery store, and on the subway. It’s been one of those invaluable touchstones that’s gotten me through the pandemic, and made the world a little less grim. And now it’s my favorite song — one that I almost missed out on hearing altogether.

It came my way through a recommendation from one of my friends, after I had listened to the “Disco Demolition Night” episode of the You’re Wrong About podcast. (After “Heaven Must Have Sent You,” you should listen to that, too.) In it, hosts Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall explore the late ’70s and early ’80s backlash toward disco, which, in many ways, was an attack on the Black and queer communities that created and embraced it. The genre’s inherent joy felt like an assault on the serious sensibilities of rock and roll, as did the people who enjoyed it. Growing up, I remember being told disco was just a fad, and that people who partook in it should be embarrassed. Now, it’s being reconsidered as an influential and powerful force that absolutely changed music, paving the way for the electronic dance stuff we listen to today.

Finding “Heaven” rewired the way I think about fads, trends, crazes — however you’d like to refer to them. The very definition of a fad is something that, while popular now, won’t be for very long. We tend to treat the people who like fads as victims of suspect taste who mindlessly follow the herd. And following that herd, that wrong herd, is supposed to be embarrassing. The shame is what keeps us in line.

But if the American mainstream was so wrong about disco for so many years, I’ve begun to wonder, what else have people shunned or tossed off as inconsequential because they didn’t think they’d like it or didn’t really care for the people that enjoy it?

Thanks in large part to women, BIPOC, queer people, and young people — the groups of people whose taste has been at best ignored and at worst maligned — it’s become harder to dismiss these likes as trends or fads. These groups have called for reexaminations of culture, food, art, and music that critics, who largely have been older, white men, so easily disposed of or ignored.

There’s another factor at play, too.

One of the many strange, unintended consequences of the pandemic is that I appreciate joy, in all its forms, more. Being surrounded by doom and gloom, and perhaps facing my own mortality, has made me a little more shameless about the music, movies, activities, and food I enjoy. Who has time to worry about someone making fun of your taste in music or joining the masses if neither they nor you are guaranteed to be here tomorrow?

That sounds awfully grim and probably says a lot about my own self-consciousness. I’m just sorry it took a pandemic to find out that worrying isn’t worth it.

Fads and backlash tend to go hand-in-hand. They wouldn’t be called “fads” if they were universally liked; they’d be called “timeless” or “classic.” Instead they’re called trends, crazes, obsessions, even guilty pleasures — the implication being that there’s something inherently shameful in their temporariness. The people who enjoy fads are people who don’t yet realize the shame.

A prime example is teenage girls. Their tastes, from Twilight, Taylor Swift, and the Beatles to fashion and beauty trends, have been shrugged off as trivial at best, and disposable at worst. In that same vein, the dismissive term “mommy porn” was often thrown around to describe the raging popularity of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey in 2011 (itself a Twilight fanfic) and its subsequent movie incarnation in 2015 — and felt as much a jab at the source material as at the audience who consumed it. Heaven forbid moms experience horniness.

It’s not hard to find the same types of threads when fads like comic books, group fitness, sneaker culture, and K-Pop first burst on the scene, with some speculating that only a certain community of people liked them and that the crazes would quickly die out.

The fatigue we’ve been anticipating, however, has yet to kick in. Sneaker culture is financially vital to brands like Nike and Adidas, and now Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga, too. And not knowing who BTS and Blackpink are is impossible, without living under a rock.

If fads get big enough, or if there’s enough money to be made, mainstream culture adopts them, usually begrudgingly, while still excluding integral elements of that fad.

Take TikTok. In its early days in 2019 and even 2020, the social network was written about as if it were a passing fad popularized by Gen Z. Seemingly overnight, TikTok dances went from flash-in-the-pan moments to cultural fixtures. Last month, the platform announced it had more than 1 billion users, a base that’s powered primarily by teens.

With the massive attention and popularity, white TikTok creators can now be very handsomely paid celebrities. That hasn’t been the case for everyone: Black creators, many of whom originated popular dances and other content, have not gotten the same opportunities, leading Black creators to boycott the platform this June.

The pattern of mainstream culture neglecting the people who started the trend or fad isn’t that surprising when you consider that gatekeepers, tastemakers, and critics have tended to skew white and male. But social media and the internet have been leveling the playing field by giving people — young people, people of color, women, LGBTQ people — a place to gather and be heard.

“As Black folk, we’ve always been aware that we’ve been excluded and othered. Even in the spaces we’ve managed to create for ourselves — whether it be in music, fashion, language, or dance — non-Black folk continuously infiltrate and occupy these spaces with no respect for the architects who built them,” Erick Louis, a dancer and TikToker, told Vox this past June.

Social media made it easier for people like Louis to call out and criticize appropriation or unfairness. It’s made critics more conscious of their own biases and blind spots. That’s a positive outcome.

It has also galvanized taste.

The internet makes the line that separates fads and mainstream culture incredibly thin. Even niche corners of the pop culture landscape feel five seconds away from becoming swept up by the masses. A fad is so quickly adopted that it’s almost futile to fight it; by the time a hater has heard of it, chances are so have many millions of fans.

Something odd is happening: People you may have thought were chic and hip are falling into fads, drinking the popular drink that’s all over Instagram, reading the novel a celebrity promoted in their book club, or wearing that overpriced shoe everyone has — and people you thought were dorky may now be trendsetters, pioneering viral recipes from their mom’s kitchens on TikTok. It’s all strange in this moment, and even I, who might scoff if one of my friends ordered an espresso martini, understand it.

It’s indicative of how the pandemic may have changed all of us. It’s made people a little more earnest about what they do like and won them a bit more slack. Given the litany of bummers over the past year and a half, we’re entitled to a little bit of that.

Over the pandemic, as I watched friends turning into plant dads, knitters, bread bakers, and cat moms, I began to realize that these fads and trends were bridges to human connection, allowing us to build communities that we might not have otherwise. Granted, some of these hobbies are much more permanent and carry more commitment than others (say, making the photogenic Dalgona coffee is a lot less investment than getting a pet), but the end result is the same. There’s a second level of enjoyment unlocked by joining and participating in a community.

It makes sense that as the pandemic severed a lot of our in-person ties, people turned to fads and crazes to create new ones. They did so with less self-inflicted embarrassment.

Whether our propensity for fads carries on in a post-pandemic world (if one even exists), is truly anyone’s guess. Perhaps we’ll get to a place where we can be abysmally, universally cynical about a fad. I’m not a trend forecaster or any kind of soothsayer. I would also trade every fad I participated in to get the before times world back. But the pandemic truly changed the way I — and a lot of people in my life — pursued joy.

It made me realize, more than ever, that it isn’t permanent. That’s why I found myself seeing what everyone else is chasing and joining in that hunt. If people said Peloton or weird coffee or feta made them happy, I would give it a shot.

Fads aren’t going to take you to joy every single time; joy isn’t guaranteed. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, they can help you find your way around.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior culture reporter for Vox.

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