Words by Annabel Bai Jackson.
During the pandemic, a gentle instrumental song became ubiquitous across TikTok—used and reused to soundtrack videos of morning routines and day-in-the-life edits. With its balmy chord progression and feel-good hum, the track signaled the cultivation of an enviably tranquil mode of living, one that in itself was an aesthetic that came to dominate large swaths of the app. But despite the pervasiveness of this tune—it now accompanies over 12 million TikToks and counting—its provenance is probably obscure to the vast majority of users, including those who are familiar with its beats. It’s called “Aesthetic,” and it’s by the musician Tollan Kim. The name probably won’t ring any bells, and yet Kim’s work is part of a ballooning TikTok mainstream, made up of snippets you can effortlessly—or perhaps, more accurately, mindlessly—recognize.
The contradiction at the heart of Tollan Kim’s success—millions of people know his song, but he couldn’t be further from a household name—represents a flux in the thorny, ill-defined category of “the mainstream.” For years, journalists have been anxiously diagnosing its terminal decline, identifying the internet as the guilty party.1 Algorithmic platforms including Spotify, TikTok and YouTube at once niche-ify our listening interests, pushing us into ever-shrinking, personalized echo chambers, and disperse them over a broader range of options—making musicians like Kim achieve incredible numeric success, without the qualitative cultural capital to go along with it. Meanwhile, streaming services like Netflix and Prime pump out more content than we could possibly consume, dramatically lessening the chances that a single show becomes a unanimous cultural touchstone. We see a “monoculture” fragment into “polycultures”—a mainstream split into creeks.
While critics might lament the wane in watercooler TV and must-have albums, this shift has a more complicated impact on artists. Success in the mainstream is inevitably tied to TV commissioners, A&R scouts and marketing executives. But up-and-comers wanting to get spotted no longer have to fight through these traditional, often exclusionary corridors of power: Digital pathways offer a bypass. One genre that has massively benefited from this is lo-fi, defined by Jack Brophy—the founder of lo-fi music label the Jazz Hop Café—as a minimalist sound featuring synthetic beats and sampled melodies, made by so-called “bedroom producers.” Mostly created independently without the backing of studio execs, lo-fi tracks have exploded across the internet, with the Jazz Hop Café’s YouTube channel amassing 109 million views since it launched in 2015. But circumventing one path to success means wrestling with another.2 For Brophy, musicians have now become “a slave to algorithms.” “Artists are often left baffled by the fact that they have millions of monthly streams, yet only a couple of thousand followers on social media,” he says. “And they’re not likely to be selling out a tour anytime soon, either.”
Lo-fi, and other artistic products of the internet generation force us to reconsider how we can quantify mainstream triumph. We have statistically successful artists who are culturally obscure, with mass listenership but no real fans: If the forms of cultural and economic capital that make something mainstream have gone awry, perhaps “the mainstream” itself needs rethinking.
“The mainstream has three different meanings,” according to Erik Hannerz, a sociologist at Lund University and author of Performing Punk. “We can talk about it as a layman’s concept, describing the popular, the bland, the conventional,” but within academic circles, definitions are harder to pin down. “Most, if not all contemporary research would argue that the mainstream has little, if any intrinsic meaning,” given how flawed any attempt at empirical measurement would be, says Hannerz. His final definition comes from the perspective of subcultures, for whom “the mainstream only exists as a relational concept,” an abstraction you define yourself against. “It has value because it’s the straw man that you construct, that you distance yourself from. The distance is meaningful in itself,” he says, “not the mainstream.”
“The mainstream has value because
it’s the straw man that you construct,
that you distance yourself from.”
Hannerz’s research sheds a different light on the journalistic elegies for the monoculture. Because it’s not just punks, metalheads or cosplayers who treat the mainstream as somehow “other”: Merely invoking the term in casual conversation positions you as external to it, invokes a deliberate margin of difference. If the mainstream is a concept that people almost always identify against, not with, it may be the case that it’s very much alive and well—but if you’re part of it, you’re simply not using the language. Subcultures, Hannerz says, rely on “these maps of meanings, these rules and rituals, these representations, that tell us who we are,” turning a mere viewer or listener into an insider, someone who can follow the group’s “mythology.” The mainstream lacks this coherent aesthetic identity, this voice from within. In some ways, this makes it an almost impossible phenomenon to talk about in a meaningful way: As soon as you’ve uttered it, you’re outside of it.
But if the mainstream does have a solid basis, outside of being a cultural straw man, it resides in its relationship to time and space. The mainstream was once grounded in routine moments—the household TV at 9:00 p.m. on a Sunday, the watercooler in the office first thing on a Monday. There’s still a huge appetite for this type of collective experience: When the British Film Institute in London hosted a midnight screening for the finale of HBO’s Succession, tickets were snapped up pretty much instantly.3 But by and large, with the flexibility of streaming, that shared hearth for audiences to gather around has dissipated. Even within the digital world itself, a dislocation has taken place between different platforms: Tollan Kim might have 12 million TikToks using his sound, but he only has 92,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. “Unlike the impact of punk or hip-hop culture that brought with it fashion, personality and art. . . any culture with lo-fi exists entirely on the internet,” Brophy says. For him, this is one of the reasons the genre “won’t go down in history.”
If the mainstream is indeed sputtering to a sense of an ending, this absence of carved-out moments for culture to be collectively enjoyed is certainly its biggest loss. But it might be more accurate to think about the mainstream in a slightly different way—not as a genre, or as having a discernible rise and fall, but as an event. The South Korean TV juggernaut Squid Game, which premiered on Netflix in 2021, was probably the last time a show ticked all the mainstream boxes on such a mass scale. It raked in the numbers, became Netflix’s most-watched show ever with 1.6 billion hours of it being streamed, and bagged the cultural cachet, with publications from The New Yorker to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporting on its sky-rocketing popularity. Squid Game also, crucially, escaped the internet that gave it its success, becoming part of the cultural conversation offline—meaning that your dad has probably heard of it. 4 If this kind of global success now only comes around every few years, the mainstream can be read as a kind of happening—a moment of cultural clarity, and a lucky glimpse at collectivity.