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The grand unified theory of aesthetic vlogging – TechCrunch

At the beginning of the pandemic, Rian Phin, recently furloughed from her stressful job and struggling to create content, was living in a poorly lit townhome in Brooklyn with five roommates. When she moved into her own artist loft, replete with aesthetically pleasing high ceilings and big windows, natural sunlight filling the white room, she could finally create lifestyle content aestheticizing her life. 

Phin, who was a Tumblr-famous fashion blogger in her youth and presently boasts over 70,000 followers on YouTube, identifies as an aesthete. Aesthetic vlogging for her and others is a demonstrated savvy for infoglut — the ability to rapidly process a huge volume of information into an “aesthetic.” Some of the most popular aesthetic vlog titles follow the lifestyle formula: “Get Ready With Me,” “What I Eat in a Day,” “Room Tour,” “Morning Routine,” and “My Quarantine Morning Routine.” At the core of these vlogs, whether categorized as van life, booktube, studying, wellness or fashion, is an aestheticization that rejects the more explicitly mediated, aspirational presence cultivated by mainstream influencers, even while their strategies and aims are similar.

But Phin’s personal style, Ssense-bought silhouettes and a lot of black, deviates greatly from her fellow aesthetic vloggers. Over email, she told me her sensibility still overlaps with other players in the space, but that she’s just made a conscious effort to avoid anything cute or girly because it’s inherently “marketable” and “saleable”: “Then, brands start developing products and digital and other ad campaigns around video styles.”

While we all occasionally note the way information and images are presented, most people tend to prioritize function over aesthetic value. But not aesthetic vloggers. Viewing and evaluating the internet as chiefly an aesthetic object — how aesthetically pleasing, beautiful or cute something is displayed/presented — is what unifies them. 

Gone are the days of endless customizability (Myspace, Tumblr, Neopets, Live Journal), so aesthetes are tasked with creatively filling the content void left by mid-to-late aughts fashion bloggers (Lookbook.nu, The Sartorialist, Style Bubble, etc.) and 2010s beauty gurus. 

Limitless content accelerated by the shorter trend cycles caused by fast fashion and the digital shopping experience no longer demand that fashion bloggers serendipitously document their outfits of the day in front of walls in public places or beauty vloggers exclusively discuss makeup. Aesthetic vlogging, a mutant form, combines all of these while overlapping with other fashion-focused corners of the internet, from subcultures like High Fashion Twitter to seller platforms like Etsy and Depop

The idea is to collage together new aesthetics from what’s out there, yet there is a unified underlying aesthetic: colorful thumbnail fonts that often mimic the exacting fine line script produced by mechanical pencils or chunky, finger-drawn cursive scribble; high-spirited color stories; and pretty garments and interiors. 

Among many aesthetic vloggers, there’s also an implied belief in the myth of French Girl coolness and girlboss self-optimization (see: the “That Girl” trend and Notion app tutorials). 

Yet it is dissatisfied with the hustle (the “I Don’t Dream of Labor” trend) despite all manners of self-care being indistinguishable from productivity and work: the day-to-day labor of feminine preening and aspirational-yet-relatable “influencing” that captures daily tasks like eating, running errands, socializing, applying makeup and exercising on camera. What sets aesthetic vloggers apart from other kinds of influencers, the more explicit hustlers, is their sense of ease and a disavowal of labor that is in fact a form of labor, as it yields the same outcome: income.

Separated by age, geography and cultural milieu, the most visible aesthetic vloggers, Elena Taber, Jenny Welbourn and Orion Carloto, among others, present themselves as an aggregate of their commodities and interests, marrying sprezzatura (“studied carelessness”) with cuteness. The personality and history of their objects — whether thrifted, designer, upcycled or Coach-gifted (like whimsical knickknacks or Detroit Floyd beds) — and interests like yoga, reading and film photography, amount to simulacrum.

The sprezzatura communicates: “Oh, this intentional design and curation that looks like it requires the effort of a 15th century courtier, Alexa Chung and a cutting-edge design firm? I don’t know how any of that got here, haha.” Evidence of effort is failure, and the point is to appear like you didn’t try.

This is achieved through the minimalist white walls contrasted against the dark wood trims of their dwellings; exposed brick; textures; a downtown-cool vibe; laminated glass tables; lacquered wood floors; books splayed and stacked across pine wood floors; elements of 1960s-1980s Parisian and Italian modernist design; mid century-modern furniture and knick knacks; asymmetry; high ceilings; the organized nonchalance of Instagram “photo dumps”; layering; the hand drawn or handmade; film preservation; art collecting; record collecting; woven throw pillows; curated clutter; unfiltered, low-res selfies; the spectrum of browns and beiges; natural lighting; an appreciation for things found in nature like plants and flowers; hyperreal individualism; trend-omnivorousness; and countersignaling with vintage clothes. 

The cuteness is exemplified by personality-driven and fussily girly flourishes, intimate moments and commodities, as well as a marked lack of reticence when it comes to color—pinks, viridescent hues, yellows—never bordering on camp or kitsch, but flirting with maximalism.

Cute aesthetic objects like B21 Koya plush dolls and mushroom lamps juxtaposed next to the eclecticism and novelty of a bohemian design. It’s the documentation of their lives among their casually beautiful commodities, collaging and curating aesthetics; the “make Instagram casual again” movement; and the final, adult form of disparate styles of the alterna-girl aesthetics. (Aesthetic vloggers with a more educational than lifestyle bent to their channels have obsessively limned and doggedly cataloged every existing alterna-girl aesthetic.)

One of the most popular aesthetic vloggers, Madelynn De La Rosa, 29, who is known for her sublime video content, grew up in Europe. A childhood moving to a new military base every three years expanded De La Rosa’s perspective on beauty. She developed a geographically and culturally adaptable interest in all things makeup, film, fashion and art. 

Her YouTube channel often showcases her deeply aestheticized, hyper-stylized vlogs that artfully romanticize her life. They feature her sumptuously decorated Spanish-style apartment, beach outings with friends and well-spoken articulations of topics ranging from sustainable fashion to veganism. 

For De La Rosa, recording videos of herself might have begun as a way to document and aestheticize the mundanity — and the thrills — of womanhood, but an artful documentation materialized. 

De La Rosa was delighted when, after amassing her first 100K followers, the Michelle Phan-owned company Ipsy gave her a three-year contract to do beauty content and moved her out to Los Angeles, where she has resided for the last six years. 

But last year, while under lockdown, De La Rosa struggled to produce beautiful content like Phin had. Was it frivolous — “now more than ever!” — to focus on what’s beautiful in her life? She believes that this unprecedented time was an opportunity for growth, a way of vlogging that emphasizes self-care, promoting a lifestyle that’s as health-conscious and socially distanced as it is beautiful. 

“How do you make your life look like this?” De La Rosa told me over the phone, playfully mimicking the people who praise her for her idyllic content: “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen L.A. like this!”

In 2019, aesthetic vlogging migrated to TikTok and Instagram, gaining in popularity at the start of the global pandemic, especially the “main character energy” videos emphasizing romanticization of everyday life.

Aesthetic vlogging content — mostly propagated by Gen Z kids — is a departure from the less-curated lifestyle vlogging that propelled Emma Chamberlain to the top. “Emma Chamberlain is almost the definition of, like,‘that girl” — but it’s as if it was something given to her that she didn’t even want,” Tiffany Ferg, an expert on media and YouTube, tells me.

And most of the aesthetics innovated by Gen Z also use lingo they’ve created and popularized: Cringe-y/“cringe” replaced cringeworthy. “Aesthetic,” once a misnomer, now denotes beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, cute. If something is “aesthetic,” it’s not ugly, intentionally so. And “cheugy,” coined by Gaby Rasson, became interchangeable with the word “try-hard.” All of these terms correspond with aesthetics, as well as describe attitudes and people the same way that, say, the “starter pack” meme attached general descriptors to aesthetics.

The usage of this new slang is confusing at first, but eventually, one adapts to the youths’ consensus reality driving the culture. One learns to reconfigure their subjectivity in favor of the thoughts, feelings, preoccupations, anxieties and tastes of Gen Z and Z-llenials, obliterating the long-opined generational divide.

Now, millennials who observe the prevailing market trends dictated by people born in the mid-90s to early 2000s can reasonably pass, culturally speaking, for much younger. This has resulted in a mimesis predicated on young people influencing millennials — thus collapsing demographics — and an over-prioritization of femininity under late capitalism. 

The fixation on the cultural production of youth, in a culture that historically prizes youth, has exacerbated for women the already-fraught nature of femininity and beauty that exists along a continuum inextricable from youth. Cute-sprezzatura, while fundamentally feel-good, disrupts that a bit, privileging an affectedness that’s not usually associated with the feminine. This ultimately abates the inexorable modern crisis of fatigue and cringe brought upon by encountering — after scrolling to the bottom of our social media feed — an uncool or distasteful past version of ourselves by removing the appearance of effort, thus the sense of having failed.

Mass-produced design associated with the millennial aesthetic like blush pink art prints and terrazzo, and the gaucheness of over-refinement, luxury and conspicuous consumption inevitably produces the opposite effect. 

At the core, however, it’s still about easy consumption, especially when “cuteness” is interpolated. Rian Phin’s inclination to roughen up the cuteness to make her aesthetics less assimilable to marketers feels correct. 

But cuteness is a lot more complex than meets the eye. According to theorist Sianne Ngai, who, in her book Our Aesthetic Categories: Cute, Zany and Interesting, asserts that cuteness — a highly consumable, copyable, uniquely feminine aesthetic category — “aestheticizes” and “eroticizes” powerlessness. The reason we find old people so cute — for their presumed frailty — is the same reason we foist cuteness upon girls and women, and girls and women package themselves as so, consciously and unconsciously. 

The titular character of Amelie played by Audrey Tautou, Hello Giggles’ creator Zoe Deschanel and Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, to name a few, have exceedingly accessible “cute” presentations. Anyone can be cute like them, really. Unlike with beauty, there’s no barrier to access, which is appealing to content creators trying to eke out space in an over-saturated creator economy.

Jenny Welbourn (image source: YouTube screenshot)

Canonical cute-girl figures like the aforementioned fictional and real women coexist, with some friction, alongside “it girls” and influencers native to the internet now. One such purveyor of cuteness is the ribald, quirked-up YouTuber @Bestdressed, a.k.a. Ashley. Her channel is far from anodyne viewing, as it evokes rage from Gen Z scolds who don’t understand how an immigrant girl whose introduction to sustainable fashion was her frugal mother could take an Amazon brand deal

The market demands of an information-dense culture — and the reality that Gen Z is the savviest generation of consumers — has created an expectation of a sort of individuation that appears thoughtful and well-rounded. It’s not enough for young would-be influencers to influence.

They also have to prove they’re “interesting,” which is another aesthetic category — “the aesthetic of information” — Ngai highlights in Our Aesthetic Categories, stating that a “tension between individual and system undergirds the interesting.” 

Tavi Gevinson is a possible model for these young women.

The verbally gifted, culturally astute Gevinson hit the scene first as a fashion blogger, and then as the Editor-in-Chief of Rookie Magazine, and obviously influenced equally smart, precocious stars like Yara Shahidi, Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya, Willow Smith, et al. (Smith and Stenberg are both members of The Art Hoe Collective, a collective of young artist femmes with strong visual identities who met on Tumblr and wanted to create a space for themselves similar to Rookie, but less centralized.) This coincided with an increase in awareness of social issues, as many young girls and women began developing leftist politics not typically found in mainstream media representation. Tavi represented the emergence of a new kind of “it girl” who is distinguished ultimately for the same reasons “it girls” have always been distinguished (her appearance, considered as a package) but also for tucking all sorts of information in with the package.

Those who aren’t naturally endowed with interestingness seem entitled to it. This has created an Ingrid Goes West-like standard for poseurs, across varying spheres of influence, for what I’ve started to call tastefishing: encrypting one’s philistine self with an added layer of imitation, heightening the gravity of mimesis already at play. A long-sleeved shirt under a short-sleeved shirt for one’s personality

Case in point: Kendall Jenner recently adapted the persona of a tastemaker, someone in possession of “high consecration” or “high status” tastes. Posing alongside trendy experimental fiction and poetry books selected by her agent Ashleah Gonzales, Jenner traffics in male attention, gratuitously decorates her home with artifacts she’s brought back from Art Basel, and plays old songs on Zaza World, her very own Apple Radio show. What a difference from five years ago, in her Vogue 73 Questions, when the model cited Marley and Me and The Notebook as films she likes and Tupac as her “spirit animal.” 

But can we blame her, when it’s no longer enough to be pretty and rich? Now, there’s pressure to be interesting, too, if she wants to keep up with booktubers, aesthetic vloggers, Tavi Gevinson, Kaia Gerber, Emily Ratajkowski, Emma Roberts, and countless other stylish, loquacious, bookish young women. 

The necessity of an interesting performance of self, of demonstrating one’s ability to stylishly cut through an infinite and rambling internet freighted with big ideas is a remarkable thing. It turns this abundance of information into something generative rather than overwhelming. And yet its small details — organized pixels, hex codes, fonts, still and moving images, etc. —  inform our perception of the aesthetic beauty it contains.

The stickiness of sight and sound, of memory, the accumulation of ephemeral sensory hunches and impressions, make it a generative experience for aesthetes, especially girls and women for whom there’s a higher expectation to perform their identities in an increasingly image-based culture via performance-based platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram.

The lifestyle influencer is aspirational because of their ability to monetize it. Fans look up to them not only because they want to live the same way but because they want to monetize their own lives.

The aspirational bent to aesthetic vlogging is not only about desiring to live insouciantly among beautiful things; it’s also wanting that ability to cut through all the static, to make something beautiful yet saleable out of the glut. And who better equipped to alter and curate perceptions and experiences of aesthetics online than women and girls? Women and girls, after all, have the imagination to watch others watch us, the uncanny ability to gaze upon ourselves like we’re situated in another body and experience. Our gaze surveils better than the most advanced technology — or the male gaze.

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