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When I wrote about corecore last year, I couldn’t have imagined the video subgenre gaining as much exposure as it has now. It’s all over Twitter, it’s sparking viral discourse. It’s on TV!
Researching corecore back in October and November as I wrote the piece, many of the top videos were haywire, silly, unhinged. Gibberish, mostly. Usually only 15-to-30-seconds long, they were laced with funny dances, anime clips, internet rap, and shoddy game footage. The appeal seemed to be the way all these pleasingly weird audiovisual stimuli converged into a blitz of recognizable signifiers, a data-heap of sweet vibes. By collaging images and sounds you wouldn’t expect to see paired, the videos captured a fleeting essence of feeling, an inexplicable vibe.
In the last month or so, the scene has transformed as it skyrocketed in popularity. It’s become dominated by moodiness. The most popular corecore videos now tend to be a minute long and feature whole clips taken from movies or YouTube videos or political speeches of people talking, often about something poignant or unnerving: feeling like you’re invisible, the commonplace dehumanization of women, the way social media has withered us into human husks of loneliness crawling through life’s cyclical sadnesses. It was at once fascinating and perplexing to watch the scene turn so nihilistic. That wistfully poetic strain of the style was always there, lurking under the surface, and then it took over.
Corecore’s recent ascent has been fueled not just by the actual videos but by a discourse emerging around it. The scene has become a battleground for TikTok critics, YouTube essayists, and video makers proffering an array of theories about corecore’s original intent, how it was corrupted over time, and what it says about zoomers. On one end, people argue corecore is more than memes: it’s a politically charged art movement critical of capitalism and technology’s atomizing effect on society. The other camp says the videos are all about surreal humor and vibes; the amorphous essence of subjective interpretation; intangible emotions.
As bizarre as it seems, the comment sections on these corecore dissertations feature some of the more lively debate I’ve read about the political potential of short form TikTok content. And on Twitter, there’s no end to the discourse—the reactions to corecore are sometimes more intriguing than the videos themselves: it’s “soundtracks for a Blade Runner funeral home”; “the zoomers discovered hauntology”; “communist psyop”; “the greatest invention of the alt-right pipeline”; “Marshall McLuhan died too soon”; “a Harmony Korine movie trailer”; “upcycled Tumblr”; “someone call Adam Curtis”; “crowdsourced Luis Buñuel”; “AI-generated emotional hypnosis.” It’s ridiculous, but it speaks to how people really want corecore to be something profound, to wrench meaning out of it.
One of the most popular corecore-as-radical defenses argues that the scene always had political roots, dating back to editors like High Enquiries and Mason Noel, who have rarely if ever used the tag “corecore” but made impressionistic montages tinged with anticapitalist and environmentalist ideas. Matt Lorence criticizes the way corecore’s ideological fervor dissipated over time, arguing that newer clip makers have ignored the political undertones and focused solely on depression-themed aesthetics.
Many people agreed, but others—such as heksensabbat, a pioneer of the absurdist strain of corecore who may have been the first person to use the genre tag—were confused and upset. Soon after Lorence’s video gained traction, heksensabbat made a “corecore explanation” video stressing the subgenre’s expressive depth, the way it was meant to be boundless and about whatever you wanted. “When I made the first corecore edit in July, it was mindless and supposed to be funny,” the editor wrote in the video. “Didn’t expect it to get this popular.”
The discord seemed to spawn from the way these differing edit styles—and adjacent ones, like #NicheTok and the cat-centric “pinkcoree”—have all somehow congealed together under #corecore. The frenetic montages are clearly distinct from the slower, meditative meme-poems, but they’ve all become tangled like knotty hair, the former somewhat subsumed into the latter. In a way, the context collapse only deepens the conception of corecore as the final core that combines all cores, since the subculture can’t even agree on a stable conception of itself.
By being simultaneously about everything and nothing, and gesturing at the flimsy, transient, replicable nature of internet aesthetics, it undermines the way cores have historically been used online as ready-made descriptors pointing to clear-cut aesthetics. There is no easy way to sum it up. No obvious “meaning.” Its murkiness mirrors the chaotic contentscape of the internet in 2023. (This sort of defeats corecore’s anything-goes purpose, but I’ve seen some creators coin their own sub-sub-genres within the scene: there’s vexxcore, which is like Hyperpop Daily shitposts morphed into madcap video edits; wilbertcore has this cute dog.)
It’s tough to imagine corecore—and TikTok edits, in general—ever being effective tools for progressive organizing or disseminating radical thought. It feels like the people claiming the genre is politically potent have bought more into their own fantasy of what corecore can be than the videos as they are or were: drifting, tepid, feeble. The longer “philosophical” corecore videos may spark twinges of joy or gloom, but they don’t make me want to do anything beyond continue my endless scroll. They bore me, even. The ideas critiqued in these videos—consumerism, social anomie in the age of late capitalism—are often vague and indeterminate or so boilerplate you don’t learn anything new. It feels faintly redolent of the genre discourse around vaporwave, which critics sometimes overanalyzed and lauded as an essential critique of capitalism. Corecore is unlikely to convert anyone who isn’t already primed to hate billionaires or wish they had the willpower to delete all their socials and go live in the wilderness.
Still, it’s frustrating that the original long videos, which had more creative sensibility and political urgency, have been usurped by a swarm of copycats making derivative gloomscapes. The cruel irony of corecore is that despite its premise—to be about everything, to capture fleeting sensations—people have still found ways to formularize it to ride the hype wave, recycling the same American Psycho and Taxi Driver clips, the same affecting Aphex Twin songs. That said, the repetitive nature of newer corecore sort of adds to the terrifying nothingness at the core of the style. It’s like the genre, which in many instances is critiquing the delusions of modern society and the soullessness of our accelerated digital media landscape, is folding in on itself, unable to escape the emptiness it’s portraying.
Perhaps what’s most progressive about corecore is the relatively anonymous nature of its creators and the collective drama that takes place in the comment sections of the videos. Many of the editors don’t reveal their names, do facecams, or link out to their personal socials to build a brand. It’s fun to imagine a spectral army of montage-makers hurling visions of disarray and emotional disturbance into a platform otherwise ruled by dancers hawking sponcon, cutely quirky niches, and influencers performing authenticity. At its best, corecore wields the native language of the platform—sampling montages, hyper edits—and pierces its glossy sheen with frightening weirdness and startling vulnerability.
The comments are rife with people anonymously relating: talking about how the video soothed them or made them cry, bonding with other viewers, trauma-dumping their personal woes. Like therapy, these videos release something in certain viewers; they puncture an emotional blockage and let the spigot of regrets and irritations run loose. They meet viewers where they are—browsing TikTok for memes, probably—and hit them with a mosaic of sorrow and roaming unease. They’re like Main Character edits that put you more in touch with your feels. Even the sillier strain of corecore is cathartic.
The discourse around corecore feels like a work of art in itself, indicative of the fluid and fast, often convoluted way art genres emerge and calcify on the internet. The scene is being historicized in comment sections in real-time as viewers argue it’s being ruined or claim the subgenre was always meant to be Dadaist-absurd. New offshoots are spawning by the week—there’s corecorecore, nichecore, coretok. Publications are writing it up. Podcasts are puzzling it out. Everyone is erratically trying to clutch at what it means. True to its name, corecore is like a project we’re all working on, the most nebulous “aesthetic” of all time.