From cottagecore to blokecore to Barbiecore, TikTok has long been the vessel through which we witness the birth of countless new aesthetic trends.
Adding the ‘-core’ suffix to a noun to invoke meaning started with old-school music genres, like hardcore or emocore. Platforms like Tumblr further popularised the term with the rise of normcore in 2013. However, the modern digital age has separated it from its musical roots, and a ‘-core’ has come to define shared ideas of genre, aesthetic, and culture within a set category.
Fairycore, for example, centres around fairy and elf mythology and its associated visual aesthetic. “Nature, soft pastels, butterflies, flowers, magic, and the vibe of springtime” are motifs that feature heavily at its centre.
Cluttercore is an interior design aesthetic, focalising densely packed, clashing and eclectic decorations that evoke feelings of authentic homeliness.
The perhaps more well-known Cottagecore feeds into a mode of existence, fetishising country life and its bucolic associations. Dreamy pastoral landscapes are romanticised through the wearing of delicate clothing, use of natural materials, and wholesome hobbies such as handmade crafts, gardening, and home baking.
TikTok has somehow found a way to define every last aesthetic within the bounds of its own microtrend. Microgenres are being fractured and fractured again, over-defining and increasingly simplifying already niche internet aesthetics. Enter #corecore - the latest in TikTok’s string of absurdist artistic trends, and the core that promises to end all ‘-cores.’
Corecore emerged first on Tumblr and Twitter as a pun on the overuse of the suffix. The Know Your Meme website states that the trend “plays on the suffix by making a ‘core’ out of the collective consciousness of ‘cores’.”
It was born as an anti-trend; a resistance against Gen Z’s desire to over-aestheticize. Corecore’s very name makes it sound void of any artistic quality - exactly why it was posited as the natural terminus to the pattern of microgenres on social media.
However, the concept took on new meaning upon its introduction to TikTok, and since its popularity surged in late 2022, the hashtag has amassed a staggering 410 million views.
Kieran Press-Reynolds, a digital culture blogger who wrote about corecore last November, defined the aesthetic as an “anti-trend that can be loosely defined as similar and disparate visual and audio clips, meant to evoke some sort of emotion.”
He continues, “[the videos] are like meme-poems, rife with movie clips, music, and soundbites that are often somewhat nostalgic, nihilistic, or poignant.”
When done correctly, a creator can splice together seemingly unrelated clips to create what Mashable calls “a compelling impression that hints at meaning, but may not be anything more than a feeling.”
Take TikTok’s most popular corecore video, for example. Set to the background of sombre music, it opens with a child being asked what he wants to be when he grows up. When asked how much he wants to make, he replies, “I’m going to make … people feel okay.” The video then shifts to a series of fast-cycling clips; an over-crowded street in Japan dwarfed by advertisement screens, an exasperated man screaming at himself in the mirror, elderly people robotically tapping slot machines in a casino, a chicken being given a VR headset to make it think it’s living outside, and a clip of people storming a shop, trampling over each other to reach Black Friday sales.
The video, which has amassed a total of 12 million views, takes us on a journey that can’t help but feel bleak and dystopian.
Other corecore videos use different tactics to the same effect. Many shine a light on poverty and privilege through the use of juxtaposition – flitting from clips of young children begging on the street for money, to Youtube pranksters dumping buckets of tomatoes on their friends, or filling swimming pools with spaghetti. A snippet showing the unfortunate reality of families in Africa might be offset with the next clip showing social media stars grotesquely shoving food into their mouths.
Corecore videos such as these are what Distractify magazine calls “a compelling and artistic way to send a message to viewers.” Many aim to hold a mirror up to society, tell us a story, or raise awareness for a certain cause, by demonstrating a problem.
They do this by using unsettling material that evokes a sense of urgency and despair, expressing emotions in a rapid, oversaturated style that mirrors how we already consume digital content. It is for this reason that one Youtuber deemed corecore “a beautiful art form that fits our generation so perfectly.”
The ability for corecore to speak to the common human experience is precisely why the concept as a whole has such a strong philosophical or political footing. At the very least, it offers an aesthetic experience providing some form of emotional catharsis and profundity.
TikToker John Rising, generally attributed as one of the genre’s originators, explains how “the subject is about the general human condition.” Some videos convey how social media breeds laziness, or how technology is increasingly alienating, but the majority centralise a disdain for capitalism and industrialism.
In fact, the very first corecore videos posted on TikTok had anti-capitalist or environmentalist underpinnings, views shared by many young people today. A Starbucks advert might be contrasted with a clip showing the reality of exploitation in its factories, or a crowd violently scrambling over each other to reach the reduced section of a supermarket.
Disenchantment with our technological reality is also a popular motif – videos of children scrolling on multiple devices at once might be spliced with clips showing throngs of commuters plugged into their headphones, watching glaring screens. This “techno-futurism-doom” alludes to something much bigger – a comment on technological overconsumption, and how society lies largely at the feet of a few select ‘big tech’ billionaires that control our reality.
It's this powerful ability for inference that awards corecore its philosophical and artistic authority. "I think there's a kind of therapeutic quality to these videos for some people," Press-Reynolds said. "The chaotic and disordered structure of these clips [...]captures feelings of technological disarray that I think a lot of young people relate with nowadays. It's like a balm for TikTok-broken brains."
In this way, corecore can very much be seen as a representation of the current social zeitgeist – disillusionment with 21st century reality.
Despite this, for a genre that formed as a result of satirising microgenres and internet aesthetics, corecore risks collapsing under its own contradictions.
Perhaps ironically, corecore’s function as an art form and, most importantly, an anti-trend, is arguably being ruined by its trendiness. Yes - very meta.
Corecore exists within the same echo chamber that it works so hard to escape, and with that comes the natural consequences of its popularisation.
People make TikTok profiles dedicated to curating corecore material, yet encourage likes and engagement by promising ‘face reveals’ once they hit a certain amount of followers. It becomes, ironically, an ode to trend culture, despite claiming to defy it.
What’s more, the race to produce corecore videos and participate in creating trendy content dilutes the genre’s original purpose. As one Youtuber argues, “corecore is something so unique, exclusive to the internet babies of our day and age, [but] is being wasted due to that very same generation's habit of running things to the ground for the sake of internet points."
He continues to argue that corecore is quickly becoming divorced from its political roots - its videos becoming lazy attempts to evoke a feeling that usually boils down to something like “she left and took the kids.”
One TikToker, Matt Lorence, argues that “people are taking this movement with strong political ideologies, detaching it from that, and turning it into a soulless and meaningless aesthetic trend."
Despite still offering a somewhat cathartic emotional experience, any divorcing of corecore from its central underpinnings means there can never be a meaningful art movement attached.
However, for many, corecore’s sheer potential is enough. Its ability to act as a critique towards social and political issues has meant the trend is considered by many to be a genuine art form curated by Gen Z.
Many find Dada-esque qualities within it – after all, is it not similar to how Dadaist artists reacted to the horrors of WWI?
While previous generations composed mixtapes, art installations, or collages from old magazines, the digital generation is simply using the medium they’ve grown up with: online content.
As a report by Yahoo claims, “[corecore] is how contemporary meme-makers respond to the horrifying realization that we are all addicted to scrolling through short-form videos. And it’s how the internet will react again, the next time the world feels a bit too dystopian.”
No matter the dilution of the corecore genre, there is no denying that it lends itself to contemporary ennui in a way that remains rooted in artistic practice. Press-Reynolds believes corecore to be a genuine movement, although not in the traditional sense - "the videos are simple but they have a lot of emotional expression — or if they don't, that's still expressing something, the absurd realness of vibelessness."
After all, what does art do if not attribute meaning to the seemingly meaningless experiences we have as humans? Perhaps then, the meta-output that is corecore is not so meta after all.
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